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A Novel Experience: Immersion in Writing and Culture in India

Published: June 24, 2015

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As a sophomore at Lawrence University, Peter Raffel wanted to study abroad. But where?

"I just knew that I wanted to experience another culture and be outside my comfort zone," he recalled. "I was one of those people who wanted to jump in feet first and try something."

He not only jumped into the ACM India: Culture, Traditions, & Globalization program, but when he got to Pune he took another leap, this time setting his sights on writing a novel for his independent project.

Peter Raffel and Sheetal Awate

Peter Raffel and India Program staff member Sheetal Awate. (Photo courtesy of Peter Raffel)

Though it was a daunting task, Raffel's immersion in writing intertwined with his immersion in another culture to become an intense, all-encompassing experience.

Now, having just graduated from Lawrence, he is poised to return to Pune as a member of the India Program staff, where he will help with the students' cultural immersion in the fall 2015 semester.

Writing a novel "was very much an experiment for me," said Raffel, who majored in English and creative writing. "It ended up encompassing a lot of my experience — taking a lot of things I was witnessing or experiencing or hearing about and applying it to this fiction that I was creating."

The novel, titled Love of My Life, tells the story of a man who lived his entire life in Pune, and all of the characters are Indian, except one who is American. According to Raffel, immersing himself in writing the novel deepened his immersion in Indian society and culture.

"For me, the novel was very much about synthesizing all the things I was experiencing and seeing around me," he said. "How can I understand this place, and how do I understand it enough to write about it? You really have to pay attention to everything and live everything and not watch from the sidelines."

Raffel credited a pair of mentors who were instrumental to his project. One was Sucheta Paranjpe, the Director of the India Program, who read and commented on his work. The other was his independent project advisor, Professor R. Raj Rao, Head of the English Department at the University of Pune and a prominent writer who has published novels, works of non-fiction, and collections of poems, short stories, and plays.

At Pangong Tso Lake in Ladakh

Peter Raffel at Pangong Tso Lake during a trip to Leh, Ladakh in northern India. (Photo courtesy of Peter Raffel)

To gather background information, Raffel said he constantly talked with people — from professors and staff at the program to university students in Pune to a group of friends he hung out with in the evening at a local ice cream shop. "I had questions along the way and I had tons of research to do," said Raffel. "I had to sit down with multiple people and say 'Does this make sense? Does this work? Is this the way it would happen?'"

His host family was a prime resource, as well. "Basically, I took over their dining room table for hours every day [to write]," he said. "They were very supportive and engaged in the process."

After Raffel returned to Lawrence, he added to his novel and reworked parts of it. At the suggestion of his advisor, he submitted it as his Honors Project.

While he has written short stories and essays in the year and a half since being on the program, Raffel said he hasn't had time to work on any longer fiction. That may change this fall, though, as he plans to start another novel when he is back in India.

As Alumni Fellow for the India Program this fall, his top priorities will be to help students familiarize themselves with Pune during the orientation and to facilitate their cultural immersion throughout the semester.

Crossing a street in Pune

India Program students waiting to cross a street in Pune. (Photo courtesy of Rachel Vinciguerra)

"There are so many things you’re experiencing and trying to understand [as a student on the program], and one of the things I'm looking forward to doing is unpacking some of these things with the students in group discussion," Raffel said. Possible topics, he noted, might include the caste system, gender roles, and other cultural differences between living in India and the U.S., and how the students are adjusting to those differences.

Raffel is also planning to come up with tips for the students — what he called "the things I didn't know" — especially for the first couple of weeks after they arrive in India, and excursions to see a variety of places and events around Pune.

What advice does he have for students to prepare for living and studying in India? "Honestly, get excited," Raffel said. "Be excited to see a completely new place. That is one of the greatest joys."

"India is a place with so much culture and so much to experience," he continued. "It's very exciting and beautiful to me, and contradictory and upsetting at certain times. It's a place you have to wrestle with and come to terms with, but I think that's why I love it so much…. It's a very exciting experience and life-changing."


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