The Jaaga team’s trip to INK Live 2013 in Cochin started with a bit of a close call making it to the train (Bangalore traffic should never be underestimated!), but we all made it aboard just fine.  For me it was my first overnight train journey in India, something I’ve wanted to do since I arrived.  I find the expansive reach of the Indian rail system, both in distance and impact on the population, quite impressive.  And, I must admit, there is some sort of romantic notion I have associated with traveling through India by train.  But, I digress.  The journey was a smooth one and we arrived in Cochin excited to begin our weekend at INK Live.

There were a lot interesting and inspiring speakers, with different styles and passions, featured over the three days, but here are a few that struck me and have kept me thinking after that weekend: Robin Chaurasiya delivered a moving and thought-provoking talk at the start of day two.  She posed a series of ‘what if’ questions that opened our minds to possibility, but also challenged the audience with difficult self-evaluation.  I’m making some assumptions and generalizations by saying this, but I think it’s fair to suggest that Robin’s points about valuing the marginalized, specifically sex workers and their children, were met with a silent ‘Amen’ in the minds of many in the audience.  But Robin went on to challenge us in more personal ways.  We want to support change, and value those less fortunate, but what if that sex worker’s daughter gets into a better college than our own daughters?  How much change are we really ready for?  These questions make us a little squeamish and uncomfortable, but I think that’s good sometimes.  It’s healthy to take a very honest look at ourselves, without the tinted glasses and sugar coating.  How can we expect to inspire change in others, if we don’t acknowledge there are opportunities for change in ourselves?

Another talk that hit a chord for me was given by Kelli Swazey.  Kelli is an anthropologist, and as such, has been studying peoples professionally for some time.  But her talk focussed on reactions and interactions to a different culture that were deeply personal in nature.  Kelli fell in love and married a man from the Toraja community,  whose attitudes and rituals surrounding death are profoundly different than those Kelli, or likely most other people, are accustomed to.  In some cases, the rituals are so extreme in comparison, it would be very easy to dismiss them as ‘crazy’ or ‘backward.’  Kelli challenged the audience to think about our reactions to, and interactions with, different cultures, and challenge what we label as ‘progress.’  As an American, newly arrived and trying to make a life in India, I find the topic of interaction with a new culture very personal.  While the Toraja example is far more extreme than what I experience in Bangalore, or India, the topic is a timely one for me.  When do you observe and when do you interact with a new culture?  How much of yourself, your own notions and values, should you bring to the table versus not?  I found Kelli’s talk to be stimulating and in some ways reassuring that the ‘differences’ don’t always have to carry as much weight as we sometimes assign to them.

Christopher Kirchhoff spoke about his job as a disaster investigator, and specifically, his experience investigating the the Space Shuttle Columbia accident.  Learning from failure was an important lesson in the talk, but he made clear that truly learning from something means digging deeper than we may often be inclined to do.  For example, with the Space Shuttle Columbia, there was a technical defect – an issue with foam insulation falling off during launch.  It would be easy, and perhaps not even wrong, at that point to consider the investigation done, remediate the foam issue, and move forward.  But as it turned out, foam falling off during launch was a known issue that had become so common that the defect had become the norm.  How had this happened?  How had a defect become expected behavior, instead of a cause for concern?  Beyond the technical fix, a larger cultural issue had to be addressed.   Internal attitudes toward safety standards had become lax.  Fixing the ‘how’ – the foam – was not enough to avoid a future problem.  The ‘why’ – the culture that had allowed the problem to persist – needed to be fixed as well.  Christopher’s message: don’t stop at the ‘how’, find and address the ‘why.’

Overall it was a really good weekend.  There were elements of the INK Live format I might have changed, but when I think about any conference, I most frequently think about the people.  I could have watched INK Talks streaming live on my laptop at home, but I would have missed out on the lively discussions that followed and the opportunities to meet, discuss and learn from new people.  Plus, now I’m a night train novice ready to continue my adventures in India!