Sunday, June 20, 2004
In 2003-2004 I was an Ambassadorial Scholar with Rotary International. I spent the year at Jawaharlal Nehru University in New Delhi. During my time I traveled through the north of India, across Pakistan and to Nepal. What follows are posts from that trip.
Wednesday, May 5, 2004
Dear Friends and Family,
Well, it’s my brother, Devin, who’s here now. This still does not mean the whole family has been here: Patrick and Lisa hold good jobs and have no intention of visiting in my final week in India. Yep, this is my final week. It’s unbelievable to me that I’ll be back in the US so soon. India is not a place one just stops being in. Nor is it a place anyone can really see in a lifetime, certainly not in 10 months.
In my last letter I promised to share a bit about the trip to West Bengal that my sister, Christina, and I went on.
India’s spring festival of love, excitement, childhood and cheer is called Holi. It’s celebrated by evening fires and daytime color. It happened that Christina and my trip coincided with Holi.
She told me her name was Nayna in the limited English the Sisters taught her. The purse probably communicated my lack of intention to stay, though I didn’t want to send such a message. It fell from my shoulder as I attempted to teach her patty cake. Her legs tucked under her, she sat on her bed ladylike with eyes brightly looking up into mine. I wondered if I saw hope in their glow, or if it was just my own need for reassurance. Her toes poked out, round and shiny, beneath her dress. Her bony palms slapped my own, while her fingers, cold and swollen with blue nails, hit my wrists. She’s dainty, enchanting in her smile, four years old and dying. She lives at the Sisters of Charity’s Orphanage in Durgapur about 160 kilometers north of Kolkata1.
Nayna’s room is poorly lit, filled with child-sized hospital beds whose railings raise and lower to ease a caregiver’s task. Four beds are pushed together in an effort to conserve space. The other three children appeared to be boys, but that’s because their heads are shaven. They each lay in a bed, unable to sit up. Christina took interest in one in particular. His arms bent stiffly and collapsed towards his chest accentuating his handicap. Sister told Christina that he has cerebral palsy. His mouth was open in effort and expectation as if about to speak his first words. No word would be spoken. His expression is one of excitement at Christina’s attention.
Already, a week before Holi, pink powder had been thrown at Christina and me through a bus window. Knowing it was all in good fun but without color to return the assault we could only duck from the pink dust.
Without really planning it, but lead by our common interests, Christina and I found ourselves on an expedition to organizations and agencies that work to address needs here in India. Christina, who works with the L’Arche Community (a community of intellectually handicapped people and their caregivers) in Erie, PA, wanted to visit a sister community called Asha Nikitan in Kolkata. My scholarship here in India is through Rotary International, so I was interested to learn of Rotary Projects in the area. Rotary Clubs are all over India. As a Rotary Scholar I have the wonderful luck of being welcomed about anywhere. Amitabha (Amit) Bajpayee is the contact Rotarian I had in the area. Thanks to him we were hosted all along our travels.
The powder is the mildest of the fun. Come Holi Morning, syringe type water shooters and buckets filled with colored water are aimed at every moving target.
Amit belongs to the Rotary Club in Durgapur. He brought us to the Missionaries of Charity Orphanage where Nayna lives. The next day he brought us to the Speech and Hearing Action Society. SAHAS was begun by Mr. and Mrs. Jajodia whose son was born deaf and were told that in India deafness would mean he was also destined to be without speech. The Jajodias were fortunate enough to go to Los Angeles (John Tracey Clinic) where they were trained to teach their child to communicate with the 2% hearing he still had. Today, their son is 16, still deaf, but fluent in both Bengali and English. In addition, through the founding of SAHAS, there are 80+ children whose parents might not have been so fortunate as to go to Los Angeles, but who are learning to communicate in spite their being deaf.
Two little boys, one 4, the other 3, in royal blue shirts and clean faces ran in circles through the doorways that connect the three rooms making up SAHAS’s building. Our serious conversation of the continuing needs of the Center – including a larger building – was repeatedly interrupted by happy shrieks from the boys. I wanted a picture, I thought of just their ordinary play. But the boys’ parents wouldn’t let it be. Pictures are too rare to be wasted on candid play. Each boy stood still for a moment, the small cords of the hearing aids tucked under their collars. They looked at the box between our faces then blinked, startled by the flash. The second boy reached for the camera. Timid that it might flash in his eye again, he cautiously turned it around in his hand and then attempted to look through it himself. I turned it away from his face and lightly tapped the button showing how to make the flash. In an instant he made it flash taking an up-close picture of me.
Holi is a festival to pretend we don’t know any better. Children assault their elders with pink water then tackle their wet hair with yellow dust. Wives take the opportunity to pour purple water over their husbands and husbands smear pasty undiluted die in their hands and rub it all over their wives’ faces. No person, car, dog or even cow gets away without color.
Of the projects we’d come to Durgapur to see, I was most interested in learning about a school that the Rotary Club of Durgapur was running themselves. I had read a bit about it, learning that it rested in an area on the boarder of two districts, each of which believed the village belonged to the other. For this reason neither district took on running the school. Before the Durgapur Rotary built a school, the local people wanted their children to receive an education. They were holding school in the shade of a tree in the hopes of bringing it to the government’s attention.
On our day to visit the school the classes were extended into the late afternoon in order for the children to meet us. The homes around were thatched but the school was brick with four classrooms and three walled pits outback serving as toilets. The school was very poor, cracked blackboards hung on each room wall and insect infested bamboo served as beams. Damage from last year’s monsoon caused the roof of heavy tiles to sag. The children were shy, not accustomed to visitors. Their eyes raised inquisitively while their chins obediently cast themselves down. A few had been taught English rhymes, like Twinkle Twinkle Little Star. They proudly recited their rhyme and sat as quickly as they had stood.
Once the children were dismissed, a strong thin father carrying his even thinner four or five year old son arrived. The school building was converted into a simple health clinic. Once a week, a doctor comes from the city to address the health needs of the families in the village. The boy had cerebral palsy, we were told. The doctor explained to us in English the simple (and economical) uses of homeopathic medicines. In the dusty heat, the child clung to his father, trusting his loving efforts would carry him to what good there is to be done.
In Kolkata, the Asha Niketan house had a huge terraced roof, perfect for Holi celebration. There was great excitement in the air as everyone donned their oldest outfit expecting its colorful retirement. We climbed the stairs, some more capable then others. A few bounded up taking the steps two at a time. Others held back, apprehensive to see what the day held. The youngest of the community, Bidhan2, only 10 years old, had the most severe physical disabilities. He could walk only short distances; his legs bent weakly attempting to balance his upper body which was a perpetually in moving "S" shape. Now he clung to the railing, pulling himself up in jolted movement. Christina, who is more instinctively generous than I, quickly knew to lift him slightly, taking some of the weight off his legs allowing him to lift one to the next step. The intimacy and trust was immediate.
Once all of us were on the roof the colors came out. Buckets of purple water were poured on one another. Then yellow and pink dust was smeared on one another’s face, hair and clothes. A puddle of purple formed on the cement rooftop. We cupped the water from the puddle in our hands and threw it at each other again. A short wrestling match took place in the puddle. Bidhan, clinging to the rail of the porch, smiled in the sunlight, unable to throw water himself but covered with color all the same. After the wrestlers relaxed, with the help of others, Bidhan made his way to the purple pool on the ground. Lying on his stomach, he allowed his hands and arms to swim in the water, the air and happiness. There’s bliss.
I fly back to the US on 12 May. Devin will say a couple more weeks and visit Pakistan. Incidentally, when Devin went to the Pakistan Conciliate here in India there were at least three times the number of people applying for visas then there were eight months ago when I stood in that line. The India/Pakistan relations have been improving daily since the ceasefire on Eid, last November.
I look forward to seeing so many of you again. Thank you so very much for all the support you’ve shown in the past 10 months (and before too!). I thank God every time I think of having come here. I wouldn’t have taken the risk of it weren’t for family and friends who supported, believed in and prayed for me. Thank you.
There is no fitting way to stop living in India, nor is there a fitting way to stop writing about it. I don’t say it lives on in me, but that it simply lives on, to be watched, participated in, worried about, born to, threatened by and loved. To have had moments of my life lived here has been an honor and, I hope, an act of peace.
peace and love,
* The Speech and Hearing Action Society is looking for information, diagnostic equipment, hearing aids and other needs for children born deaf. Any connection of techniques or technology would be used well in Durgapur. Please contact me if you have any information that could help children born deaf in India.
1 Calcutta’s name was changed to Kolkata in 20002 Name changed for reasons of …Molly’s forgetfulness about names
Wednesday, March 24, 2004
24 March 2004
Dear Family and Friends,
Hello all! My parents visited India for two weeks last month. In honor of their visit, I’ve moved into a two bedroom apartment off campus. I’m high on the fourth floor of a middle class neighborhood. With my very few furnishings, the cement walls and floors echo. The screenless windows stay open and the fans stay on to keep the rooms cool. Built in cupboard doors, too high for me to reach, hang open in the bedrooms. Pigeons come in the open windows to nest in the vacant storage space. I’m living in luxury.
There is something reassuring in having my parents, so familiar and close, in a land that, though my temporary home, is still foreign and insecure to me. While they visited I took time off class to relax and see India through a newcomer’s eyes again. Maybe I can become so wrapped up in India that I forget how to see India anymore. My parents and I visited Rajasthan – India’s desert area with limber camels and incredible forts.
At the end of my parents’ visit we were joined by my sister, Christina, who extended her Spring Break in order to see India. Together we all went to visit Agra, home of the Taj Mahal. Christina still had a week and a half in India after my parents left. We both were interested in seeing Kolkata (Calcutta’s name was changed to Kolkata in 2000) so we traveled to West Bengal.
As grace would have it, as opposed to great foresight on my part, my sister and parents visited India in the best weather of the year. The temperatures were like a breezy summer day in Ohio. To my surprise, within two days of Christina’s leaving the heat moved in. Now I remember my first impressions of India eight months ago: heat accented by the sound of peacocks hidden in the trees of JNU’s jungle. It’s too hot to sit in class. We lean forward off the backs of the benches so that the sweat does not collect and moisten the backs of our shirts. We try to concentrate while our sub-conscious reasons that now it would be best to sleep. Then, as if to remind us that things could be worse, we hear the outdoor generator conk. The six overhead fans slowly whirl to a stop. This is a daily event now that the heat has returned. Time slows when the electricity is off as if the turning of the clock is generated by the turning of the fan. More likely it’s just the assault of the heat that slows the time. I kid you not, my battery operated alarm clock, sitting on my windowsill, keeps time just fine through the night, but slows during the heat of the day. At 8pm it still reads 5:15. I know the cooler nights are a lingering relief that will disappear soon. And so it is that I’m back in Delhi. The comfortable weather lasted much longer then I’d expected (nearly 5 months!) which has been a blessing.
Tonight is the India/Pakistan Final. As has been the case with the other four cricket matches leading to tonight’s play off, streets and shops will be quiet. Taxi drivers will be hard to find. In order to draw business, restaurants, cyber-cafes and even some shops bring out televisions. Those who cannot afford the goods in the shops or restaurants still gather around the windows to watch the match. Many bets are placed, whether based on skill or loyalty I don’t know. The jovial conversation on the subject masks the depth of the competition. India and Pakistan have been on improved terms since agreeing on the cease fire in honor of Eid last November. Now newspapers carry confidence building stories of how well Indians have been treated by Pakistanis when attending the games. This is very encouraging, considering the high stakes game of 'Chicken' the nuclear armed brother nations have been facing against each other over the years.
I’m aware my letters are often long so I’m keeping this one shorter. I’ve cut a good deal out of this message. There is so much to share. I particularly want to tell you about Christina’s and my trip to West Bengal. But that will have to wait until the next letter. For now I’m well and will write again soon!
love and peace,
Mollyfollow up - 10:20pm - alone in my apartment: India must have won. You should hear the fireworks!
Monday, March 15, 2004
There are some who have criticized Mother Teresa and the Missionaries of Charity. The critics are often those in developed countries who are most concerned about overcoming the problems of poverty and equity in our world. They say that she did not do enough to tackle the systemic problems of poverty. Some say that she took money from the wealthy whose funds may, or may not, have had ethical sources. Her homes, run by her Missionaries of Charity, didn’t meet basic health care standards.
But I’ve learned it’s hard to understand the ramifications of Mother Teresa’s actions until you have stepped over a shivering burlap scrap, whom you know may very well be someone dying, and continue on you way for a cup of tea. Only until you have looked a slender mother in the eye as she carries a sleeping child and an empty bottle and tell her a forceful "No", because you don’t believe in encouraging begging, can you begin to understand the extent of Mother Teresa’s life call. You might think these are examples of the harsh and insensitive wealthy towards the poor. I hope they are not; I have done both already this week.
I search for a word to describe how I feel and can only find "emasculating" even if I have no claim to masculinity in the first place. It’s as if things that I have valued so dearly, held so true to myself, have now been ripped from me revealing how little I had in the first place.Mother Teresa’s critics are well intended but far away from the heat of Kolkata. Sure, method matters in all work and good intention is never enough, but Mother Teresa’s inspiration is an incredible ministry. It can be so easy to lose hope when what is present emits no glow of change coming. But to love is an act of faith, and faith is not based on what we see around us but what we believe to be beyond our reach in the realm of that which is greater and better than us. Accepting the humanity, even of Mother Teresa’s ministry, is not to let down our ideals but to put hope in good coming out of our clearly inadequate attempts to love one another.
Thursday, March 4, 2004
Yamuna Pushta Slum Update – 3/4/04
Yamuna Pushta follows the Yamuna River. It was January 10 that I first visited the slum. I wrote these impressions about it soon after. I’ve been back a couple of times since.
The narrow alleys between the simple brick homes of Yamuna Pushta are comfortably walked single file. If we walk two next to each other, we’re constantly quickly stepping back to allow those walking the opposite direction to pass. Even single file, at every corner, which is every few meters, we slow down getting closer to the wall foreseeing a possible collision at the blind turn. Each corner we pass presents new angles and views of slum life: naked children gathered around the communal spigot, soap suds dripping off them into the stream of water and sewage following the alleyway; ankle high outdoor stoves made of mud smolder outside of doorways, unattended.
My favorite sight in the alleys of Pushta was a group of five or six women and girls squatting in the shade outside a home. They were straining their eyes. Half were picking lice from the other half’s hair. Those having the lice removed from their hair were bent over small beads, stringing them on a wire bangle. Anisa had already asked about these bracelets. They’re to be sold to a US company. The bracelets of tiny beads will most likely find their way to the US malls where they’ll be sold in stores like OLD NAVY and URBAN OUTFITTERS. And so, two images of modern life touch.
On January 10, there was an article in the lower left hand corner of the newspaper, The Hindu, telling of a new park to be built in an effort to make Delhi “a world class city”. The term “world class city” is thrown around so much. Those of us from places (like Geneva, Ohio) that have no desire to be a “world class city” wonder what the appeal is. Mostly I’d interpreted “world class city” to mean a nice airport and well organized traffic. Though I like Delhi’s airport (for its efficiency, not its beauty), the traffic…well, there are a lot of people in Delhi.
I didn’t look closely at the article in the newspaper but a few days later Anisa brought it by. It went into describing the plans for the park along the Yamuna River, behind Raj Ghat. It said the first step to building the park was removing the squatters living there now.
Rohinton Mistry’s novel A Fine Balance set in 1975 India, describes how slum residents moved in. The characters, an uncle and nephew looking for jobs and ahome in the city, ask about the masses of houses on the land they are about to move to themselves.
“But then, whose land is this?”
“No one’s. The city owns it. These fellows bribe the municipality, police water inspector, electricity officer. And they rent to people like you. No harm in it. Empty land sitting useless – if homeless people can live there, what’s wrong?”
The problem, of course, is when the land is wanted again. In Yamuna Pushta today, it’s not just renters falling victim to decades of corruption. It’s people who have been farming the land, maintaining businesses and holding deeds for over 20 years who are now told they’re squatters. In return for the land and the structures on it, the Pushta families are offered small bare plots outside the city, which would be a 20 rupee (45 cents) bus fare to and from any job they had near Pushta. The land will be given for the reasonable price of 7000 rupees ($150).
A notice will come to a family telling them their home will be the next to go. The trucks come as foretold. Sometimes they come, park for a few hours then leave. Other days the excavators do their work. The strong arm crushes the brick, metal and bamboo homes. The families pile what they can on cycle-rickshaws, sometimes taking the bamboo walls themselves. Very few head to the land offered them. None will leave the city. Most will set up shanty homes elsewhere.
I don’t pretend to know the solution to urban housing problems. It’s true; one does not solve housing problems by perpetuating a slum. But one doesn’t do it by eliminating what housing there is either.
Tuesday, February 17, 2004
Feb. 17, 2004
Dear Family and Friends,
In November I sent a message ending with a description of a begging child. I was slightly concerned about the image I painted, not because the girl was not real, but because it was only one angle of India. To clarify, the beggars in Delhi are not the poor of India. Seventy percent of India’s population live in the countryside. In those rural areas there are neither doctors nor education. Far from the cities are the families whose members work their entire lives making bricks. Yet they are never able to repay the 500 rupee (approx. $12) debt taken on to pay for a funeral. By the time they reach old age, though age is hard to measure in grueling places, their wilted skin is a deep brown dusted with red or tan clay. In the extremes of rural areas some people have their only brush with modernity when they lose their land when a dam is built. Children are sent to Delhi for a better life.
Additionally, it must be understood that India is not a country of beggars nor is it a country asking the rest of the world to take pity on it. The poverty is overwhelming, dehumanizing and disheartening. For a foreigner from the West not to notice the poverty or not to write about it would be neglectful. It would be wrong to brush over the fact that 70% of the children in India live in conditions worse than even the poorest child in the United States. But India has a thousand years of history under every stone. A traveler gets used to the towers, the tombs and the forts that at first sight bring images of emperors, dungeons, mist and hobbits. The Indian way of life and culture is both unique and diverse. It’s easy to think that it’s a civilization "catching up", but such a viewpoint is arrogant and faulty. Indeed, I’m often reminded that the United States is the "young" civilization in the world.
As I type, the orange dye artistically painted from my wrists to my fingertips, is slowly fading. Feather-like images along the back of my hand, spirals around the knuckle of my fingers and shapeless wisps up my index finger stop abruptly at my nail. This is henna, an enchanting ornamentation Hindus, Muslims and Christian women alike have painted on their hands and feet on festive occasions. If I turn my hands, more geometric shapes are whimsically stained on my palms. On each finger is a long peacock feather. The beak and elegant neck curl at the inside of my wrist. The die, made of a plant extract, was applied by an artist two weeks ago in the Eid-Adha festivities. First it was extremely dark, almost brown. Within a day or two it faded to a red and now it’s orange. Against my pale skin, the henna appears particularly dark. We’re told that dark henna predicts a good mother-in-law in the future of an unmarried girl. After seeing my deeply dyed hands my female classmates make remarks about my good fortune. Then they role their eyes and say "Oh, as if you people have to worry about that!"
In most families, the bride is taken into the groom’s home and made a part of the family. It’s understandable that some girls consider a good mother-in-law more important than a good husband. Most bridal couples do not meet each other for the first time until the wedding night. Middle and upper class families are becoming more liberal: the boy and girl will meet a time or two before making the decision to wed. There are some love marriages (less then 10% of the middle and upper class) but such marriages are considered risky. After all, what do an unmarried boy and an unmarried girl know about marriage? Indians and others take the longevity of Indian marriages (and the lack thereof in the West) as an indication of the success of the system.
An Indian marriage ceremony is one of the first things one reads about when looking into Indian culture: exquisite handmade invitations announcing the "auspicious occasion" ("auspicious" means "lucky", did you know that?), a dowry often four times the annual income of the bride’s father, saris intricately embroidered, breathtaking gold jewelry, days and nights of festivities. Grassless parks, empty land and farmhouses are transformed with felt green carpet, multi-colored tents, archways of thick fabrics, a few stages and brilliant lighting to freeze a soul in her place. Read any Westerner’s account of an Indian wedding and it will say the same two things: it’s all alluringly beautiful and the bride looked petrified. Many would agree the groom looked anxious as well. It’s probably not our place to draw such conclusions but I know I’d be scared jumping into such an unknown. However for Hindus, like all of us, marriage is an act of faith. Hindus I’ve spoken to believe that God (most learned Hindus I encounter claim monotheism) is guiding their lives. There is no making a mistake here; they only have their astrological sign, their caste (disregarded by a few), maybe a guru, and their parent’s judgment to go on. There is no second guessing after the big day – this is what they’re called to. I pray for such certainty – without the astrology – as well.
Not everyone wants such arrangements. One friend in his late twenties sets his sights on greater and greater career goals saying he’ll marry once he’s professionally settled. In reality he’s searching for a love marriage. Another friend, single and in her 30s, is a Supreme Court lawyer who only took education seriously when she saw her sister, who did poorly in school, married off against her will at 19. Many of my female classmates at JNU will admit they pursue education as a means of putting off matrimony. But these are the minority; most are content to leave the selection of their spouses to those with marital experience.
All this said, I’d given no thought to the upcoming Valentine’s Day. In Delhi, it’s extremely rare to see a couple holding hands in public. Affection is something kept in the quiet of home. So last Saturday came as quite a surprise. I’d seen the heart shaped balloons appear in shop windows earlier in the week. Still I was taken aback, that night, when upscale Vasant Vihar had traffic at a stand still. There was no parking at restaurants and I doubt there were any tables available inside. Outside the Pyra Cinema Complex, there was a live band. Young people were dancing – not as couples – but dancing on the plaza! The newspaper Sunday Morning reported that prices on gifts, chocolates, cards and roses were four times that of any ordinary day. Cell phone companies were tied up in the morning with the abundance of text messages. The paper also reported that there was a great deal of controversy over the day, claiming that Valentine’s Day was "alien to Indian culture". There were protests and card burnings. One NGO, in an attempt to bring the holiday to India and raise awareness of women’s issues, proposed calling the day "Bahu Divas" – Daughter-in-Law’s Day!
Again here’s India, where internet-cafes are built along side ancient tombs. BMWs impatiently tail ox-carts. Huge stout Dalmatians and Labradors are walked on leashes along road construction passing shoeless little boys sleeping on piles of sand. There are those whose future is in medicine and technology, and those whose lives are spent tending sheep on Himalayan mountain tops. It’s a place where marriages are arranged, but the young with money in their pockets are adopting at least the commercial aspect of Valentine’s Day.
Hope you had a wonderful day!
love and blessings,
P.S. My parents are coming on Thursday!