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People standing around a lagoon and historic structures in India
March 25, 2019
4 mins read

Reflections from a research forum in India

When I was a child, I experienced a recurring nightmare: I stood on a stage in front of a full audience. The bright lights shone on my face and the crowd waited impatiently for my performance. Each night, I would freeze in panic.

A decade and a half later, I lived an uncannily similar experience. I had been pulled onto a stage in an auditorium at a university in Punjab, India. Alongside a group of 30 peers, I performed a Bhangra routine, a local folk dance that I had never practiced, let alone heard of, before that day.

Finally, the song concluded and the audience hollered their approval. It was not a nightmare but rather one of many unforgettable experiences from the UBC-PUP Joint Research Forum in Patiala, India.

The lead-up

I came across the Research Forum unintentionally while browsing the Go Global website. Although the forum, focusing on culture and heritage in the Punjab province of India, was outside my area of study, I immediately felt inspired to submit an application. Luckily, I was accepted!

Before we left, the team assembled for 2 briefing sessions. I quickly learned that the 15 students selected for the Forum are amongst the brightest, most passionate individuals I have encountered during my time at UBC. During these sessions, Dr. Anne Murphy, and the Go Global Advisors addressed all of our concerns at every step of the way.

Then, the day arrived. We assembled at the airport on a blustery Valentine’s Day and boarded the plane with equal measures of excitement and nervousness.

After a 14-hour flight, we landed in Delhi. There to greet us at the airport was our ever-cheerful friend and guide, Pushpinder, a doctoral student who would accompany us for the rest of the trip. After a 4-hour drive, we arrived at the pristine lawns and ornate gardens of the Punjabi University of Patiala (PUP). The PUP delegates greeted us with smiles and roses–the first of many acts of kindness and consideration.

Aaron and PUP students in India

The fantastic forum

When the alarm sounded the next morning, it was a novel moment to stop, rub my eyes, and remember, “Yes, of course, I’m in India.”

After the opening addresses, we hopped on the bus and began a tour of local shrines. We visited Hindu, Sikh, and Muslim sites, highlighting the incredible religious diversity of the area. We continued through the busy city streets and the bustling markets. Every sight was given extra dimension with the insightful commentary of our new PUP friends. They spoke of their lives, their experiences at school, and eagerly asked similar questions about Canada.

street scene in front of a market at night in India

The academic sessions began the following day. Collectively, they highlighted the long history of connections between Canada and Punjab and addressed prior tragedies such as the Komagata Maru incident. Along with the theme of the conference, they also discussed how historical events, such as the Partition of India, are remembered both at grand and small scales. After the lectures concluded, we split into smaller groups and began independent research projects.

After 4 days in Patiala, we boarded the bus and began the journey to Amritsar, the site of the Sikh Golden Temple. On the way, we stopped in a village and were treated to the hospitality of a local family. Heaping plates of food emerged from the small kitchen while we wandered around the property and got a slice of rural Punjabi life.

Learning, no textbook required

The Golden Temple complex was amongst the most astounding experiences of my life. We were fortunate to have the PUP students guide us while explaining the history and nuances of the site. For our research project, we studied the ways in which social media are used at holy sites, like the Golden Temple. Conducting interviews and making onsite observations, I discovered that there are some things that no book can teach. It was the most hands-on learning experience I’ve had to date!

The PUP students made the experience truly enriching. While we stumbled, wide-eyed and stunned, through marketplaces and gurdwaras (Sikh temples), they lead us with patience and good humour. They were always ready to break into song and dance: on moving buses, in parking lots, anywhere that had a flat surface!

During our time in Amritsar, we also visited the harrowing site of the Jallianwala Bagh massacre, where, on April 13th, 1919, the British Army killed over one thousand peacefully assembled Punjabis. The area has now been converted into a public memorial park and serves to illustrate the Forums’ discussions on the ways in which mourning and memory are curated and practiced. As well, we visited the recently opened Partition Museum and explored the ways in which the history of the event is portrayed.

On our third day in Amritsar, we presented our research projects. We then boarded the bus one last time as a squad and traveled to Preet Nagar, a town close to the border with Pakistan. Our visit coincided with the Preet Nagar Mela, an arts and culture festival centered around the theme “Beyond Borders.” At the Mela, we encountered responses and renderings to the legacy of the Partition by artists from numerous nationalities and disciplines.

After a final lunch together, we stood in an endless field and flew kites in the midday air, silently preparing to part with our PUP companions.

three people flying kites in a field in Amritsar, India

Then, the time for departure came, and they left us with a flurry of hugs, and assurances that we will meet again one day.

An unforgettable experience  

The forum was rewarding in every regard. It was academically stimulating and socially gratifying. It presented the indelible opportunity to engage with a fascinating culture, a living history, and a wonderful group of peers. It was challenging, taxing, and entirely unforgettable.

If you’re interested in an international experience, do yourself a favour and send that application in. Even if you feel like you don’t have the time, there are short-term opportunities like the Forum in India. Many experiences have funding opportunities too! Learn more at Go Global.