My First Impressions of India

Ruth Martin —  October 12, 2015


My first impressions of India were formed through the rear windows of an SUV.  It took about an hour to get from the airport to what would be my temporary “home” for the week.  About 30 hours earlier I left Grand Rapids, Michigan to arrive at my ultimate destination in Hyderabad, India.  I had been anxiously awaiting this trip since joining Read Asia as its Interim Executive Director, less than two months earlier.  And let’s just say that I was more than excited to see what India was really like.

You see, I’ve had an interest in Indian and other Asian cultures for quite some time, probably because they’re so different from my own.  Over the years, I had watched several documentaries about life in India, a Bollywood movie or two (“Slum Dog Millionaire” and “The Best Marigold Hotel” come to mind) and, more recently, a comedic documentary called, “Meet the Patels,” which is a story about adult siblings (a brother and a sister) who work in the film industry in Los Angeles, and were born and raised in the U.S. by parents who were born and raised in India.  But I digress….

To prepare for my new role as Interim Executive Director of Read Asia and for my first trip to India, I immersed myself, for weeks, in official government reports, statistics, and articles about: India’s immense population and culture (currently 1.3 billion people); the country’s diverse people groups and languages (over 1,400 languages and dialects); India’s geopolitical system and the laws that were designed to protect and educate females; the inherently discriminatory caste system (that was abolished in 1950 but is still “alive and well” today); and the frequently ignored atrocities that continue to harm millions of impoverished Indian women and girls, such as, child marriage, child labor, gender-selected abortion and infanticide, extreme violence, and illiteracy.

But, nothing could prepare me for the magnitude of humanity that was impossible to escape once I was outside the Hyderabad Airport.  The sights, smells, and feelings that were evoked were intense and everywhere.  I still can’t get the images of so many hungry-looking people crouching inside exposed mud huts, tents, and shacks along the roads, out of my mind.  Nor can I forget thinking about the constant chaos in the streets: drivers continuously honking their horns while almost running into one another; one dilapidated building after another, women dressed in colorful saris while balancing huge bags of rice on top of their heads, and the stench that hit me when I first rolled my window down.

Until I was exposed to this very different way of life up close, and to the sad realization that it really was “common” for so many people to live today without running water, electricity, a toilet, floors, beds, clean clothes, and enough nutritious food to keep a family fed and healthy – I hadn’t given it much thought.  Now I do.

It only took one hour on the ground to experience the “emotional rollercoaster” that India now is to me.   And in that short amount of time, I completely understood why it was so important for me to actually be there.  The 30 hours of sitting in cramped planes and walking through all those airports on the way to India, had already been worth it.

Gatri is a graduate of Read Asia's literacy program

Gatri knew her life needed to change for the better. All she needed was the tools to improve her life. She shares in her own words how the Literacy Program gave her not only the tools, but the confidence.

I am just a simple village woman. My parents told me education wasn’t important for girls. So, when I was little, I stayed home and learned how to cook and clean so I could be a good wife.

As a teenager, I was married off to a field laborer. Within a few short weeks of our wedding I realized he was an alcoholic … and wasted his time on unproductive activities. I knew that I had no choice but to start working in the fields as a daily laborer and take care of our family myself. I also earned a few rupees by selling milk from the two cows my parents had given as part of my dowry. However, I knew I was easily cheated because I couldn’t count the rupees I was handed.

As I gave birth to two sons and a daughter, money became scarcer. I wanted to be self-reliant—but I didn’t have the tools. I knew I needed to get an education—but I didn’t know where to turn. That’s when I heard about a Read Asia literacy program.

My dreams of education finally became a reality. I was thrilled when my teacher even showed me how to use local materials to make liquid soap, incense sticks, paper bags, pickles, and other items. Before long, I started my own business selling these things. I now earn a steady profit of 1500-2000 rupees (about $25) per month, which means I can support my family. I even plan to open my first savings account soon!

My kids are healthier, too. My teacher explained how important it is to wash our hands before cooking or eating, to bathe regularly, and to keep our food covered.

Today I am not only confident, I am also content in my life. I can support my family and live my dreams.

Today is International Literacy Day. Give more women and men like Gatri the tools they need to improve their lives.


Read her story:

Post by: Sasha Saur

Mother’s Day.
It reminds me of hanging plants, and handwritten notes.

But it also reminds me of the vast number of women around the world living without the capacity to support or embrace their children (or their freedom) because they are inhibited by their culture, husbands, religion, violence, gender, government, illiteracy, illness, abuse, addiction, mental state or physical pain.

I recently read the story of a young woman in India who grew up watching her mother being physically abused every day. Rain or shine, beatings were in order for them both. It’s hard convincing her that she’s worth something, when her brothers always surpass her in the eyes of her father and those in her community. She knows that this is the kind of life she will potentially walk into when she gets married, perhaps bringing a daughter into the same life she grieves to know. She hadn’t ever been given anything before she had the chance to become literate as an adult. It was the first time she felt confidence, value, strength and hope (read the full story here).

This young woman knows hardship, as countless others around us do. She knows that without literacy, she would have never felt that she could start a business, send her daughters to school alongside her sons, or know that she didn’t have to be at the mercy of an abusive spouse. The truth is, a mother who is literate is healthier (and so are her kids), fulfilled, and will be worth more in the long run because she believes in herself. Perhaps our culture defines us, or our past, or our pain. In the case of this young woman, it wasn’t her past but her future that changed the way she saw everything.

She isn’t a mother yet, but she will be.
The empowerment she has found now makes all the difference. Can you imagine  what her life would be like, had her mother been literate too?

Happy Mother’s Day to those of you who endure hardship and remain strong. To those of you who get out of bed every day and choose joy. To those of you who have lost children, or lost yourselves in broken marriages. To those who have seized opportunities to learn as adults, pursue dreams, and seek equality. To those of you who live with partners who support your life as a mother. To those of you who do it on your own. To those of you who will be mothers someday.

Whether it be tulips & stained glass you look upon this day, or wreckage and sorrow, know that you are valuable—and that hope can look like literacy. Hope can look like sunshine. Hope can look like Rain.

Mother’s Day is the day she is treated like an equal. The day she is literate. The day she is free.

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I am Sasha Saur. I am inspired by the capacity for good. 

Post by: Ryan Humm, Director / Cinematographer / Read Asia Advocate

When I travel to a new environment for film and photography work, I get aesthetically inspired. Architecture, markets, landscapes, and colors all bring a new challenge and a new way to capture an image.  But I have learned that what truly inspires me is photographing and filming people.

A few months ago, I was hired to film general b-roll footage in Nashville. The client wanted shots of buildings, city centers, nightlife, and parks. For the first time in years I was unsure of myself; I wasn’t filming people. I realized during this job that my passion and inspiration for capturing images comes from from faces, from laughter, from transparency, and from suffering.

Recently, I traveled to southern India with Read Asia. The population, the income disparity, and the religious tension were so vastly different than anywhere I have ever traveled before. I have seen and experienced abject poverty in multiple countries, but I’d never seen slums next to Google or Oracle office buildings. I thought I was there to tell a visual story of literacy, but really, I learned that the story of literacy is the story of empowerment. Literacy transforms every aspect of life. Street signs mean something, prices at the market mean something, ideas on paper mean something, a love letter means something, the letters H-I-V mean something. Literacy is a cure for cognitive blindness and I was able to see and capture that beautiful transformation.

This is the story I love to tell and the reason I travel all over the world to tell it. Regardless of the country or the project or the client, it’s the same story. It’s a poetic combination of suffering, healing, forgiveness, justice and community. I need to continually remind myself that my film and photography work probably won’t directly affect the person in front of my camera. Because I am not their savior or their caretaker. But my work can provide exponential opportunities for others in their shoes.  My job is to tell the stories of dreams that we all have. Not just those dreams of people in developing nations who long to be literate, but for people thousands of miles away with resources to dream about how they can bring change to an individual, tribe, city or nation.

My name is Ryan Humm, I am a Director / Cinematographer specializing in documentary short film. To see more of my work visit or


Source: The Guardian

Massive waste accumulation has become an environmental, health and aesthetic hazard for India’s cities. Urban India generates 188,500 tonnes of trash a day. In the absence of infrastructure to handle the issue, a large, informal waste-picking and recycling industry has developed among the urban poor. This unpaid, unprotected ‘army of green workers’ collects, sorts and recycles the city’s discards to trade for small returns.

Continue Reading…

Empowered by India

Elaine Watkins —  June 19, 2014
Author: Kirsti Haverdink, Read Asia supporter

I don’t feel guilty. This is unusual for me.  Typically after a trip out of the country there is a gnawing inside me, a restless uneasiness.  I have such a full life. I have beautiful relationships, incredible opportunity, a lovely home, clean water and a freezer full of food.  To come home feeling somewhat bad for the life I have is not uncommon.

India.  My senses are immediately awakened and heightened as I take in all the vibrant colors, sounds and smells. The people.  So many people.  Where they are all going I have no idea, but the further away from the city we travel, the more curious I become. Continue Reading…

By: Jessie Emelander, Development Director for Read Asia

I was recently interviewing some women who were enrolled in the Adult Literacy Program. They came with incredible stories and shattered lives. Some of the stories were hard to believe.

I needed to understand where these women came from, so I asked if I could visit one of their neighborhoods. And I mean that loosely—because when I did, it was more like a city than a neighborhood, with one and a half million people living in one square mile. We drove down a few streets that were barely wide enough for the van to fit through, and stopped next to a small fruit stand.

So now I’m out of the car, standing next to a wall, and suddenly the wall moves. The wall is a door—a door to a shed, that could be a house, but it could just be a shed.

This girl is standing in the entrance, waving me in. I don’t know who she is, but my mother obviously didn’t teach me better, so I follow the stranger.

Continue Reading…

I think it’s important that I preface this entry by admitting that social justice had, quite frankly, nothing to do with why I was in India.

I moved there with my family in 2009 after my dad, who works for a multi-billion dollar Fortune 50 company whose name isn’t important,was transferred to an office in Chennai, a city of roughly 8 million souls on the southeast coast of the country. There could not have been more social and economic disparity between my world and the world of so many Indians. My world had air-conditioned luxury cars, and chauffeurs who called me sir instead of my name. My world had security guards, maids, gardeners, cooks, paid vacations and 5-star restaurants; and if I wanted it to, existed primarily behind gates and tinted glass.

Most of my neighbors didn’t have shoes.

Continue Reading…

I love kids. Who doesn’t? Some of the wittiest and most fabulous people I know… are children.

And I’ve always loved supporting different causes that benefit kids around the world—mostly education. Because education is one of those few things in my life that I know is real, and good, and life changing.

But it has recently come to my attention that when we talk about children’s education, the conversation feels a bit one-sided.

Because what happens when that kid comes home from school to a family that doesn’t value education? To a mother who can’t read or write? To a father who could care less?

Take it from Jaya. As you can see, she’s obviously awesome. Continue Reading…

United Nations
: India has recorded a decline in maternal mortality rates between 1990 and 2013 but along with Nigeria it accounted for one third of the global maternal deaths last year, according to a UN report.

An estimated 289,000 women died in 2013 from complications in pregnancy and childbirth, down from 523,000 in 1990, according to World Health Organisation’s trends in maternal mortality estimates from 1990 to 2013. The figure represents a decrease of 45 per cent. Continue Reading…