A long discovery of the meaning of jugaad

Adora SvitakUniversity of California, Berkeley


Jugaad. It’s a Hindi word that’s hard to translate into English—Wikipedia calls it “literally, a hack,” while some friends have described it more broadly, as something like resourcefulness. I knew of the word before starting my Tata Social Internship, but I don’t think I understood it. During previous, brief visits to India, I observed the country through glass: the windows of air-conditioned vehicles, lavish hotels, and first-class train compartments. Those experiences never challenged me the same way as the past two months.

I felt my first culture shock in observing gender roles in public space. Looking around on airplanes while traveling domestically, I realized acutely my status as the only lone woman—no friend or relative sitting beside me. It wasn’t just on airplanes that I felt this: once after shopping, I noted that suddenly I was the only woman standing on a street of food stalls, closing shops, and so many men. I started making plans that revolved around not getting home too late. It was my way to fulfill an everyday promise: my “Yes I will” in response to all those people who told me to “Stay safe.” I was deeply privileged to be able to afford the conventional accoutrements of “safety”—cab fares, smartphone apps, benevolent friends or their drivers to escort me to and fro.

Not only safety but also my desire for exploration and learning meant that I frequently had to depend on others. It was a discomfiting feeling. After all, the American mythos glorifies an almost masochistic self-reliance, “pulling yourself up by your bootstraps.” I bought into that when I started college, automatically equating independence with growth. But in Delhi, I needed help—constantly. My boss took hours out of her busy schedule to help me find direction in my internship. My coworkers helped me figure out the cafeteria lunch line and decipher unfamiliar names of foods. A fellow intern, Medha, called me Olas and gave drivers directions over the phone, translated interviews in Hindi with students at a Tata Communications-supported Skill Development Centre, and held my hand as we wove through the crowded Rajiv Chowk metro station. She even started bringing me lunches her mother packed. Over paneer and homemade chapatis, I realized that I’d never had enough gratitude for the benefits of interdependence.

Since May 27th, I’ve been in comical mishaps and unexpected situations, in trains and cafeterias, bathrooms and beaches. It has been a long discovery of the meaning of jugaad; but more importantly, I’ve realized that with so many people supporting me, I have never really been on this journey alone.