Interview with Madhavi Dandu
A Conversation with Madhavi Dandu, Associate Professor
When I asked you for a chance to interview, where there questions that you dreaded I might ask?
I wasn’t dreading the questions as much as I was thinking how, after reading how funny some of my colleagues are, I would be so funny! The worst question you could ask would be, “What’s exciting or new in your life?”
Your CV reveals a focus on global health since 2007. What in your life has impacted your direction?
I’ve been involved with global health since before college. Two things impacted my interest: first, my personal background traveling with family back and forth to India, where there are such stark differences in health and obvious extremes of poverty, and second, growing up in a very political family. It was in high school that I learned about social justice, local disparity, and community participation. Much of my life was being exposed to politics; my family always had the craziest, most vociferous arguments about health policy, how money should be dedicated, the elections and so on. My main work in college was in domestic violence, and I worked as a rape crisis counselor and as part of an emergency response team for sexual assault on campus. So, while I was involved at local levels of social justice initially, my work was always centered on global human rights, and this has been the basis of my work and interest since.
Where were you born, and what are some of your fondest childhood memories?
I was born in southeast India in Andhra Pradesh, a beautiful farming area a few kilometers from the ocean. We left when I was two. Some of my fondest memories were from road-tripping across the U.S. with lots of cousins in an old Cutlass Cruiser station wagon with fake wood paneling. All of us would sleep in the back, play car games, tell scary stories, tell silly stories—so much fun! I remember traveling three weeks with my grandparents and three children, and my mom cooking in the RV with a 21-day-old in one arm. I get tired just thinking about how my mom did that as I can hardly seem to function with one kid! Such a different world now…
Can you describe family life in the Dandu household? Which room was the one in which everyone congregated?
Definitely the kitchen, it was always open. My mom likes to cook a lot, and we always entertained. There were only a couple of years that my sister and I didn’t share a room as we always had people living with us, sometimes for a couple of years at a time. Some of these people were family members, while others were friends of friends or someone who knew someone my parents knew. They stayed with us while they got settled in the U.S. because they did not know anyone else. Sometimes they stayed for a long time because they were having trouble getting on their feet. Mainly they were from the same community as us in India, so we assumed that we must somehow be related and never really wondered why they stayed with us. We spent hours in the kitchen, eating, playing, and talking. There were always people and activity no matter what time of day.
Who were your role models or heroes as a teenager? What qualities did you most admire about these people and are those qualities still relevant?
It’s funny now, but Jerry Brown—not so much as a hero but someone I regarded as interestingly progressive early on around issues like the environment. I campaigned for him when he ran for president while I was in high school. My parents played a really big role in my life by their examples of compassion and selflessness. They were always taking care of everyone else, people who were referred by someone else. Our home was open to many people who lived with us for six months to a couple of years. They believed that we’re all connected and it didn’t matter how you knew someone. It’s something I really respect about them.
Is yours a multilingual household? What languages are spoken?
Yes. My family speaks Telugu, the language of our region and one of the largest language groups in India. My husband speaks Farsi, and our daughter is now understanding and speaking Spanish as well as English and little bits of Telugu and Farsi. I studied French for a long time but do not speak it anymore.
What are the best qualities of your cultural background, and your husband’s, that you would like to impart to your children?
The centrality of family, including family in its most diverse, global sense. Also, something that is not so much about culture but more about the stimulation of the senses, either by being taught explicitly or absorbing an awareness of the colors, the smells of spicy foods, music and dance, and the many, many sounds of raucous family life—its joys. Both of our cultures involve a feeling that to be successful involves contribution to others, that life is about more than oneself.
Can you share how you maintain balance between the demands of your work and home lives? What is your favorite de-stressing activity or practice?
One of the better things that I did this past year was to try to have one day, or at least part of a day, with my family or for myself. Patients at the later stages of life make me think about what would I look back on, what I would regret not having done. Having that perspective helps me do things more consciously. Books are important to me and I just transitioned to audiobooks while walking to work. Right now, I’m listening to Cutting for Stone by Abraham Verghese. The best fiction that I’ve just recently reread is A Thousand Years of Solitude by Gabriel Garcia Marquez. As far as non-fiction, I’ve been reading more about food, like Michael Pollen’s The Omnivore’s Dilemma.
Describe something about which you are inexplicably or unreasonably terrified.
I really don’t like heights. But I do have an ego so, when I watched my husband bungee jump, I made him go back and do it again with me. I was petrified, had no saliva, just a terrified, fearful smile. The video that was taken was really funny; even now my hands are sweating! So…heights.
Excluding cell phone and computer, what object do you use every day that you could absolutely not live without?
Definitely something that plays music, so that would probably be my iPod.
If you inherited unheard of wealth, how might your life be changed? What ideals or fantasies might you realize?
From a personal standpoint, we’d do some really fun things to the house and spend more time traveling. We daydream about taking our kids to live somewhere else for a while. Living in India and Iran would be great but I’d love to travel more around South America. I’d get bored not working, so on a more philanthropic level, I’d invest in public school education, particularly civil education. Literacy is of course important but I can’t understand how we don’t teach about government and politics.
Madhavi, thank you for your time.
- by Oralia Schatzman