Sunday, January 11, 2004

A Letter from India - January 11, 2004


Dear Family and Friends,

What a blessing Christmas in Ohio was! Though I didn't get to see, or even talk to, all of you, I'm thankful for the time and effort so many of you made to get together. My trip to West Virginia and South Carolina was brief but also a breath of air I needed. Thank you so much for all you've been and are for me!

I'm back in Delhi now. I plan to take a trip to Mumbai (Bombay) next week. It should be interesting. I wanted to share what yesterday brought. It might give a better picture of India. I fear it might not too. It might not be respectful of India and those who live here. I trust you to recognize the struggle and I'd welcome your thoughts and comments.

Yesterday I went to visit Anisa in the slum in which she is doing a research project. Anisa is another Rotary Ambassadorial Scholar here in Delhi. She's learning from a non-profit organization that works with women, especially violence towards women, in one particular slum. The slum is located behind Rajghat (Mahatma Gandhi Memorial), running the banks of the Yamuna River. It's the home of cycle rickshaw drivers and trash pickers. The slum is huge, alive and growing. While we stand along the main roadway, a baby crawls to us excited by the prospect of new faces. A child in a green sweater, with the in turned ankles of clubbed foot, seemed to dance a playful game as he and others of his age gathered to watch us.

We walk down to the expansive part of the slum that is like a rural village with water buffalo tied in front of the solid homes. Women bend kneading buffalo dung into paddies to be dried and used as fuel for cook fires. In open fields workers pull gigantic radishes from the ground, collect them in bundles so big it would take two people to wrap their arms around them, and carry the bundles on their heads.

We then wandered our way closer to the water's edge along the Yamuna. Shanties are built out of thin strips of bamboo woven into flat sheets and propped against firm bamboo poles. The shanties are built close, the thin wall separating one home from the next. A few weeks ago there had been a fire which engulfed many of the small homes where families lived. Government issued thick canvas tents rest haphazardly on the well-worn slabs where bamboo walls once stood. Daily, new thin walls are rebuilt providing family homes the size of my hostel room. Until now I'd been assessing my hostel room - a little bigger than a king size bed - as extremely small.

There sits a solid square house made of cement next to the entrance to the trash heap. Men on large three-wheeled cycles bring trash which the residents dig through removing plastic, paper, cardboard and treasures like a torn blanket to hang as a door of the shanty home. Anisa tells me that the family who lives in the cement house must have a steady income. She also tells that three months ago they lost a child: a baby, only a year old. He got a fever and died before anyone realized he was so sick. His mother excitedly invited us inside for tea. Concerned that it would put too much of a financial strain on the family, Anisa tried to turn the invitation down. But the mother would not let us decline. Inside, her home was twice the size of the shanty homes, twice my hostel room for a family of six, and she had two beds. We drank tea and talked. She began to talk about her dead baby, about his sleeping by her in the night. Another one of her children came in and she held him on her lap. Her husband told her if she continues mourning as she is, she will die; and he cannot care for their remaining children on his own. The mother said that her life was good, no concerns, nothing wrong with it, only now she will always remember that baby. She said it with dry eyes, as if she's aware that her mourning is a luxury her family cannot afford.

I want to be sensitive to India's image. Middle class Indians tell me that they do not want their country to be known only for its poverty.

I had dinner with a more fortunate family yesterday evening. I met the family at the children's maternal grandparents' home not far from JNU. Two of the children in the family were there: a son who is 6 and a daughter who is 11. The family had just returned from Egypt on a business trip turned family vacation - and they were still glowing with the experience. The children were both excited and dramatic, clearly a family who is fascinated by the world and its possibilities. Their fresh cut hair bobbed with enthusiasm as they described school projects and Egyptian Pyramids. In a clean red shirt and blue pants, the boy skipped to a drum beat in his head around his grandmother's glass coffee table as she anxiously reminded him that he could fall and break something. He and his sister tried to teach me a card game, the name of which they could not remember. They ended up arguing and realized that each was teaching a different game.

Another child came from the kitchen to set the table for us. She was darker, hair in one braid down her back, in an oversize sweater and a gaze that seemed to focus on the floor about a meter ahead of her. She was asked get a glass of 7-Up. The child's head nodded without looking at the other, her eyes locked on the same spot of nothing. She returned with the drink for the girl with short hair.

After a delicious dinner with the parents, children and grandparents, we continued what had been delightful conversation with the two children piping in their every thought even if it had no relevance to the present subject.

I asked if the girl, with the braid, in the sweater, had cooked the dinner. I was assured she was too young for such a task and that the children's grandmother had done the cooking. Then I learned that the girl had been sent from Bihar as hired help. She was only about nine when she arrived, by herself. Bihar is at least 16 hours from Delhi by train. That was a year ago. She is soon to go back to visit Bihar for the first time since leaving. I made a remark about a child so young being sent on her own. Clearly I'd stepped in emotionally charged water without realizing it. I was at first assured that her life in Delhi as a servant was better than her life in Bihar. I was also assured that if these grandparents didn't hire her she would be employed by someone else, running the risk of being physically or sexually abused. I'm sure this is true. She has grown twice the height she was when she arrived because she gets two eggs each morning, far beyond a breakfast in the village. The money that she earns goes back to her family. Most likely her younger brothers and sisters will be able to go to school on that money.

The conversation was out of my control. I was simply nodding in comprehension when the children's father brought up how Westerners don't understand the issue of child labor. Westerners think children who are working would otherwise be in school. That would not be the case; children who work come from families who would not be able to send them to school. Even grueling manual labor would be better than starvation for those children. He was sweating by the time he finished what he had to say. Clearly he felt passionately about this.

The girl, with the braid, in the sweater, spoke no English. If she was nine a when she started working a year ago, I'm sure she reads no Hindi either. The dishes were cleared from the table. It was nearly 10pm. She was closing the drapes in front of the sliding doors. I was tired.

I hadn't intended to bring up child labor. I was thinking of the mother in the slum whose child died. I was thinking of a Salvadoran mother I had sat with, as she feared for her adult son who ventured undocumented across Mexico in the hopes of finding illegal work in the US. I was thinking of a pregnancy lost. I was thinking of the mother of the girl, with the braid, in the sweater.

In the pre-dinner conversation before her husband had arrived, I mentioned to the children's mother that I'd been to the slum earlier in the day. She was concerned about the image of India I was getting. She told me that people in the West think that India is all poverty. This bothered her. It's not so bad she said. I couldn't tell her about the half burnt face of the child I'd seen that morning, or about the children who spend their days searching the trash for plastic.

I do fear I'm missing India completely.

love, molly