Wednesday, March 24, 2004

A Letter from India - 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,


follow up - 10:20pm - alone in my apartment: India must have won. You should hear the fireworks!

Monday, March 15, 2004

Thoughts on Mother Teresa - 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, didnt meet basic health care standards.

But Ive learned its hard to understand the ramifications of Mother Teresas 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 dont believe in encouraging begging, can you begin to understand the extent of Mother Teresas 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. Its 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 Teresas 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 Teresas 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 Teresas 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

An update on Yamuna Pushta Slum - 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.