Wednesday, July 28, 2010


Of all the words I learned during my time spent in South India ("hello", "how are you?", "lizard", "baby lizard", "frog"), goodbye is still not one of few I am good at actually saying. Instead of sharing with you the true sadness and distress I felt to be saying goodbye after finally feeling as though I was able to fit in, I will convey to you the overall growth and pleasure that came out of this six-week experience as a whole.

I came to India and to work with LAFTI for several reasons, the first being opportunity. Being connected with India and LAFTI from a young age, through parents, through heritage, and through my own overall commitment to learn about and work on issues related to peace and social justice, the opportunity to work with LAFTI was an opportunity I could not miss. Secondly, and much more important for me, I came to work with LAFTI to learn about Krishnammal. While I was interested in the work she does, the Dalit community she works with, and history of the country in which she works, I have always been much more curious about the way in which she conducts her work. I yearned to learn more about her as a person, as an activist, and as my adopted grandmother, abd about her journey as a leader of a formerly repressed and unrepresented people.

With regards to the overall growth that has come from this experience, it is truly indescribable. I have learned so much from everyone I have met on this trip, the baby goats, the auto drivers, the village workers, my grandma, and everyone in between. My growth has not come specifically from seeing different places, meeting new people, or from learning about peoples' sufferings, but from being in a time and place when I am able to piece together all of these places, people, and sufferings into one. It is an understanding of the country's history, the people's culture, and the Dalits' struggles that have all intertwined to create a foundation from which personal and spiritual growth is an obvious next step.

Thank you Krishnammal and Jagannathan for being the two most inspiring grandparents I could ever have. Thank you LAFTI for allowing me into your hearts and community and for giving my the opportunity to understand your past and all your sufferings. Thank you to my four guardian angels, Valayrmathi, Poongothai, Karnegei, and Mani-Muri for taking me under your care as a daughter, sister, and friend of your family. Thank you to my parents for always making me feel just a little bit uncomfortable, for instilling in me something that continues to grow. I have now filled the gaps of my own internal workings, and am on to developing more knowledge and more curiosity to start that cycle all over again.

Tuesday, July 27, 2010

Coffee In The Morning, Parathas At Night

It was my last day at the LAFTI headquarters and I really did not feel as though anything about today was going to be different. So, after a small amount of contemplation as to how the day might become different or the same, I decided on a very simple plan. I would go off on my own during the afternoon, but would do everything exactly the same as I had all the days leading up to this one with regards to two specific things, coffee and parathas.

After I washed my face and put on of my five churidars, I made my way out to the open area where someone was already awaiting with a small cup of coffee. I guess he just knew that I wanted to keep things extra ordinary this fine Tuesday morning. After coffee and a few minutes of enjoyable scenery, I decided to go on an adventure. For maybe the last two or three weeks I had been staying at the office, I had come across the same two baby goats, water buffalo, and cow at nearly the same time every evening when walking to the store across the street. Today, I decided I would go a little early. Since I still didn't know that much about the immediate area surrounding Vinoba Ashram, I thought maybe these four furry creatures would. As I began walking in the same direction as I would to the store, there they were. To make a not-very-long story short, I ended up following these four animals to a nearby watering pond which they all seemed to gather and drink from several times a day. The two kids finished first and then made their way back to their house. Because they were obviously the cutest of the bunch and I was not at all interested in actually drinking from a dirty, smelly, mosquito-filled body of water, these two adorable baby goat siblings were the ones I continued to follow. After thanking them for leading me back to the main path and doing a short photo shoot to express my gratitude, I made my way back to the offices before anyone had an opportunity to notice I was gone.

After taking the normal Indian "afternoon rest", after eating the normal Indian "afternoon meal", my favorite part of the day was just hours away. Nearly every night that Valayrmathi has stayed with me at the office, I have given one of the "night duty" men a hundred rupees for him to go fetch my favorite evening snack, parathas for me and all other people staying at the office that night. Although I can't say that this Indian flat bread is anything next to nutritious, it is one of the only other foods (besides idlis which are normally not served at night) that has flavor and yet no spice. Anyways, parathas served not only as one of my few survival foods, but also as an ice breaker. The first time I had this meal was the first time I introduced myself to those working the night shift, and it was a easy way for us to get to know and understand one another.

So, even if I went off into the crazy land of water holes and baby goats a few hours before, coffee in the morning and parathas at night are two activities on which I place great value. I do not do so because of the smell of the coffee or the saltiness of the bread, but because both actions, over my time here working and living at LAFTI, have served as a means of non-verbal,social communication.

Sunday, July 25, 2010

Coconut or Mango?

When I arrived at the hostel this morning for my last day of teaching, the roles had been reversed. I was now the student and my 60 teachers (both boys and girls )had requested that I sit outside the teaching area until the room had been prepared. Nearly fifteen minutes later after enjoying the taste and aroma of an extra hot cup of coffee, they called me in for class. When I impatiently asked what was taking place inside the room I was no longer allowed inside of, they informed me that maybe it might have a little something to do with my birthday which was to take place the following day.

When I walked into the room that was formerly known as "Meera's classroom", I couldn't have been given a better surprise. The children and staff at the hostel had lit and placed about 30 small candles around the edges of the room making for a circle of light. In the middle of the room was a small table on which a cake, a mango, a bottle of mango juice, and the idlis had been placed. The cake and candles were the most obvious signs of celebration, but the mangoes and idlis were meant to touch on a very subtle joke. Although I enjoy the taste of nearly every fruit on the face of the earth, coconut seems to be the only one I am just not able to acquire a taste for. Because I told people early on in the trip that I DID liked mangoes just minutes after explaining that I was "highly allergic" to coconuts (that's the only way to avoid anything around here), they somehow decided to compensate for my allergy by showering me with lots and lots of mangoes/mango juice/mango anything from that point on. So, sitting just to the left of the cake was one very large, beautifully ripe mango and a bottle of my favorite mangoe juice to go along. The fourth item at the table was a small plate of idlis. These round, white flattened circles are more or less equivalent to small rice cakes, a common food taken in the morning with a simple sauce to be drizzled over for flavor. Because everyone thought it was extremely funny that I was not able to eat the sauce that was normally placed over top of the idlis due to its intense spice, my students at the hostel thought it would be good to prepare for me a few extra idlis just they way I like them, plain white.

After walking into the room in total surprise and taking several pictures of the beautiful arrangements, the ceremony began. Although there was no singing of "Happy Birthday" and only one candle on the actual cake to be blown out, there was something specific about this celebration that I will remember forever. As I began to cut the first piece of cake, the people standing around me informed me that I needed to cut it to be quite large. Although I was not sure of their exact reasons (besides wanting me to get really fat really fast), I just went along with it as if I knew why it needed to be sliced so big in the first place. In the end, it turns out that after the birthday girl or boy cuts the first piece of cake, that piece is then handed around to each individual in the room so that he or she can feed a small bite to the guest of honor. Sounds a bit strange I'm sure, but in reality it's greatly amusing. As people start passing around the piece of cake faster than you can swallow the previous bite, everyone around you just begins to laugh, and sometimes even slow down the cake-passing process a little.

After cake, it was time for birthday games. Although they did not understand my initial directions when explaining to these children the game of tag, after giving an example with one of the girls sitting close by all the children were able to understand. Although I haven't run so fast or so continuously for quite some time now, it was well worth the slight lack of oxygen and extremely sore legs that followed.

Since I taught them a classic game from my part of the world, it was now time for them to do the same for me. "Coconut or Mango?" was the name of this particular activity. The game did not make any sense until about five minutes in when I started to realize the running patterns of those who had originally been picked as coconuts verses those who had been chosen to be mango. More then the game itself, I will always remember the name, and how during this day of celebration these 60 or so children took the time to select a game that I could easily understand, even if it was only the title that made sense to me at the time.

Finally, after the people had recovered from the joys of eating and running around (although not a complete joy for some when placed too close together), I was suddenly snapped back into teacher mode. Before coming to India, my father had placed in a my suitcase a few small packets of sunflower seeds (to grow giant sunflowers) to be distributed to the hostel sometime during my teaching career. I sat the girls down into four different randomly selected groups, with the exception of four specifically selected older leaders to look out and report for themselves and their chosen group. To continue with the story, I spent the last few hours of my visit to the hostel giving direction on how to plant and grow the seeds I had provided. I requested that each leader of the group assign a different one of their team members to water and measure the flower each day, and another to be the team's sunflower height recorder. If there was one thing I got from my time teaching at the LAFTI Hostel, I think the children were at the point (nearly 6 weeks later) where they could benefit from a small amount of competition, but competition unrelated to the world of academic performance where children of this age can easily be brought down by competitive standards. The plan went as follows: one week from the day I left (today), each group would plant two of the team's six small seeds, care for them daily, and record their flower's progress every week. Although I have not determined a specific prize just yet, I will be sending a small gift to all participants of this sunflower seed-growing competition. It is not that I am giving a better or worse prize based on the final height of each team's sunflower, but I am giving them an incentive to believe in something they have such great power over. Although it will take some amount of time and commitment to grow each flower to its potential, I am rewarding the students for their consistent attention to and recognition of their own skills and talents, not for the actual result of those skills or talents.

Although my whole time here as the English teacher may have come across to some as a six-week long sunflower-growing preparatory school, words can not explain the true sunflower-like beauty, strength, and color that these students developed in their personal and academic lives over the past month and a half. Humbling, rewarding, frightening, and transforming all wrapped into one. The time I spent teaching and learning from these 75 girls and boys over the past six weeks can only be analogized in one very specific way. It was like being at the middle of a sunflower and watching a million little petals develop and expand around me. I could not have watched without them there to be seen, and they would never have been seen without someone there who truly desired to watch.

Pride & Safety

This blog is a continuation of the situation and stories of Sikkavalam village I visited several weeks back. As I wrote in the earlier post, many of the villagers were not available to be interviewed the first time around because my friend and I had come to visit just minutes before the work and school day was about to start.

Although there are many similar stories that can now be told as a result of LAFTI and Krishnammal's work, this story was the first and somehow stuck with of me for the rest of the morning and afternoon. Although I will get into the details of their housing situation in relation to LAFTI later on, I must first give adequate background information for you to gain an understanding of them as a family. There are four individuals living in this house, although only three are shown in the picture above. Mother and father, T. Aravalli and R. Thakaraj respectively, T. Bhuvaneswari the couple's younger daughter, and finally Bhuvaneswari's older brother T. Logeswaran who is commonly called Vinoth by his friends and family. The family lives approximately 10 minutes away (walking) from a government pipe where they collect most all of their drinking water. Their daughter is 13-years-old and studies at the public school in 8th standard (which is what they call grade levels here), and Aravalli and Thakaraj's son has now been able to move on to higher education.

Although it may be obvious now that I have written so much about Krishnammal and her own past, this family along with all others who own LAFTI-built houses in this village are part of the Dalit community.

With regards to income generation, both the mother and father work in agriculture approximately three to four months out of the year (June-September) depending greatly on the drastic changes in climate. The family owns one goat and one cow. The goat is kept in the family until it is able to produce offspring at which point it is sold for a profit and the cycle then repeats. While the cow is able to produce around five liters of milk per day which can be sold for around 100 rupees (roughly $2.20), the cost to feed and care for the cow often only allows the family to break even. In addition to agricultural work, the father cuts and sells coconuts from March to May sometimes making up to 100 rupees daily as well, but he says that this job is not nearly as consistent. During the other five months of the year, the family participates in the government's 100-Day Scheme. This basically means that Aravalli and Thakaraj are nearly guaranteed some type of work 100 days out of the year. The trouble with this is that it often takes them away from other things they need to be doing (caring for the family, farming, etc.) because it is not always a continuous 100 days and it consists of random jobs such as cleaning the railroads or restoring roads.

Now to discuss the main reason for this blog = the family's house. When I asked them what it was that they valued so greatly about their new brick house as opposed to their old straw hut the list was neverending, but two words in particular serve as an overall description. Pride and safety, these were the two worlds that came up nearly every sentence when asked this question. "We feel much more financially safe because we are not spending 4,000 rupees every year to replace the straw that held together our hut." That family's safety is completely intertwined with their pride, as feeling continually safe financially allows them experience a sense of pride socially within their own community. Building the house by hand also provides the family with a sense of accomplishment and instills a certain amount of pride. They feel safe from the sun and rain, two forms of weather that frequently destroyed their previous hut. Aravalli and Thakaraj feel extremely proud that they are now able to buy their children necessities because they have just recently been able to save. When I asked their daughter directly, she said that having a quiet and comfortable place to study has helped her stay ahead in school, an area in which she was often behind because her homework would take her three times as long on a rainy night living in the hut.

With the help of Gandhi as my translator, this was the overall message I took away from this family and every other one like it. "We are so very happy that, with the help of Krishnammal and LAFTI, we were able to help ourselves. Although we continue to work the same jobs as before even if they are unorganized and inconsistent, we are no longer struggling to stay above water. We feel safe and proud that we have built our own home, a home that our children leave from in the morning and return to at night to complete their homework. We now live in peace and safety from the rain and sun that used to make our lives such a struggle."

Saturday, July 24, 2010

Madurai (Meeting, and Meenakshi)

Around 5 am this morning, Valayrmathi and I began our journey to the meeting in Madurai. We packed our bags with churidars and saries, respectively, and walked to the local train station. Like several others I have been on, this train compartment was for "unreserved ticketing", meaning as many people as can squeeze onto the seating bench meant to hold four. Because our tickets were booked at the same time as the village women who were to meet up with us the following morning, my grandma informed us that we were to travel as they would....unreserved! After a four-hour ride from Kuthur to Trichy, and then another three from Trichy to Dindigul (still unreserved), it was time to switch up a little and take a bus. The original plan was to take a rickshaw from the train station to the bus station and then take a bus from there to where we would be staying overnight, but Indian bus tickets are even more unreserved than all trains combined, and for that reason we decided to give in. I gave an auto driver the equivalent of four U.S. dollars and he drove us the whole 30 minutes from the train station to the LAFTI Sarvodaya Workers Home in the town of Gandhigram where we would be staying until the next morning.

Gandhigram is of great significance to me for two particular reasons. One is a bit more obvious, because it is LAFTI's original home, the place where the gigantic flower of their work today initially grew from. Specific to me, however, this is the place where I came to stay with my family for several months in 1998, the place where I remember my grandparents so clearly. I remember waking every morning twelve years ago to find my grandma toiling in the rice patties with all of the other village women, and my grandpa spinning his own shirts and dhotis from 4 am to sunrise. I remember walking to the only nearby shop to purchase a 10-cent square of peanut brittle to make up for all the spicy food I refused to eat, and I remember naming my pet water buffalo Eddie the Edumai (meaning water buffalo in Tamil) and checking in on him every morning before taking him for a short walk. Although Gandhigram was not directly related to our final destination, Madurai, Amma agreed that it was somewhere I should go back and visit along the way as it was only two hours by bus to where we needed to be for the meeting the following morning. To my surprise, I was not the only one who missed Gandhigram and all its originality. Late that evening, the few other female LAFTI staff workers and village women arrived at the Workers Home, as it was the easiest place to find uninterrupted calm and rest when in transit.

So, as the plan continued, we hopped on a bus the following morning in order to make it to the meeting. When we got off at the bus stop, we just began to walk, and walk, and walk. Because the buses were relatively expensive in comparison to the villagers' incomes and because we did not actually know what bus we would need to take to get us to where we were going, it was concluded by the majority of the group that walking was our best possible option if we actually wanted to arrive to the meeting before it ended. So we walked, and walked, and walked.

When we arrived at the meeting on foot, we were one of many. The meeting consisted of several international leaders and their followers discussing various different issues surrounding land and rural development in different area around India. Although the meeting was not being translating from Tamil to English by anyone, I was familiar enough with past speaking events that I had a strong grasp of the general foundation of the topics discussed at this gathering.

Before the second half of the meeting, my grandma suggested that the other villagers and I visit the famous Menakshi temple only a few kilometers away. Home to many beautiful colors, detailed statues, and tall painted elephants, these was plenty with which I could identify, religion and spiritualism aside. It was nearly spiritual for me, however, to see the way in which these village women and others around them so greatly worshipped this ground on which we were walking. While being there was extra special for me as a foreigner, it was even more amazing to be among those who came there regularly, religiously, and spiritually. Being there with these women gave meaning to the bright colors, brought understanding to the stories of the statues, and made a mystical creature out of every elephant standing at a corner.

If you thought spending 12 hours in transit to a five-hour meeting was a bad travel time to destination ratio, you really haven't experienced Indian travel Although I will not mention every detail that contributed to us arriving back to LAFTI around 5 am, I will share one simple example that says it all. When we where waiting to catch the last bus we needed to get back to the headquarters, there was a slight problem. There were three staff members, one intern (me), and 10 village women, all trying to get on a bus. The problem was that according to everyone else in the group, we all needed to get on the same bus and all needed to have our own seat. While this may sound like a simple task when traveling on a bus in the United States, finding a bus with 14 open seats is virtually impossible. While part of my negative attitude at that time may have been due to the 20 mosquito bites I incurred every time a full bus passed by and the fact that I am an American who had been traveling like an Indian for the past 24 hours, this highly frustrating experience turned out to be a truly transformational time for me. After waiting nearly two hours, using every last bit of mosquito repellent available, I finally began to understand. This experience, that frustration, and my immediate judgment of our group's overall inefficiency could all be summarized as just a different way of life. Because no one really had anywhere to be except for possibly back at their homes sleeping, we would all stay together, and that was just a given. I had agreed to travel with the villagers and that is just how they travel. Because few of these women often get a chance to travel to different parts of the country, this 24 hours spent on a bus, a train, or just roaming the streets looking for the location of our meeting was a time for community. This was a time for all 10 villagers to "catch up" to discuss the meeting outcomes, to reflect on the beauty of the temple, and just to be. So as I have been told time and time again when taking part in exchange programs, language classes, or academic studies of the way people live in other parts of the world, "it's not good, it's not bad, it's just different!".

Friday, July 16, 2010

Significant Details

After a long drive into the city of Chennai, Gandhi, my grandma, and me sat down to our morning cup of coffee in the office of the Secretary to the Chief Minister. Although the coffee was quite enjoyable, that was not the actual reason for our long visit so early in the morning. Krishnammal had come to ask for a relatively small favor, but one that could make a significant difference in the lives of the land beneficiaries.

Even when women are able to acquire land, and thanks to Krishnammal in their own name, there is still an expensive fee required to register that land title with the state. LAFTI has been paying this fee for the women in the past because she feels that to ask the women to pay would be to lower any level of newly found pride and confidence and would put the women in a situation of debt, something LAFTI specifically makes a point not to do. After several major negotiations with the government regarding the actual purchase of the land itself, it was now time for Amma to hammer out the small but greatly meaningful details of the land-ownership situation.

Once again, the majority of the meeting was not in English, but the purpose of the meeting was explained to me in the car ride along the way, and the extraordinary outcome of the meeting shared just minutes later. Since there had been numerous photos taken at the brickmaking ceremony several weeks before, Gandhi and staff had prepared a small pamphlet to bring to the office that day which showed the house building process and what a change in the beneficiaries' lives earlier negotiations with the government had allowed for. When the meeting concluded, the most immediate outcome was that the secretary would place the proposal document on the Chief Minister's desk for official approval. Just as everything else in India, one just has to keep asking, and asking, and asking. Amma told me that a similar request had been made several months before, but that the actual document which needed to be looked over and signed never made it to any of the people who had the authority to do so.

We thanked him and left for our next event. I think we were off to a wedding. Anyway, after we got into the car, my grandma asked me "as a business major, did you think he was a nice person?" Before I could even begin to formulate any sort of answer, she informed me that yes he was, but that we would have to wait just a few days to see if that niceness would carry on to the people. As she has reiterated to me several times since I began working with LAFTI nearly a month ago, "India is free but its people are still not". About 30 hours later, Krishnammal and I arrived back to the LAFTI offices with the news that the document had been signed and the land beneficiaries would no longer have to pay any sort of fee to register their land with the government. As was said by those who honored Krishnammal with the Opus Prize two year ago this fall (a faith-based humanitarian award given for outstanding social and humanitarian change motivated by one's faith), "every part of her work big or small, is seen by those she serves as a truly monumental accomplishment".

Water & Electricity

After having spent several days, weeks, and months throughout the first twenty years of my life traveling to different "developing" countries, two observations in particular remain constant across the board.

Water and Electricity - we live the way we do with more than a comfortable amount of water and electricity to accompany our everyday way of life. When we feel cold in the winter, we crank up the heater and take a nice hot bath. When we find ourselves uncomfortably hot, we go to that little digital box on the wall and type in the number we actually want to feel. I say all of this not to make one feel guilty or stupid for utilizing these luxuries found in many American homes, but to point out to you as a comfortable user of such resources that water and electricity are prioritized and utilized in a completely different manner in many other countries.

When you wake in the morning in Amman, Jordan and want to take your morning shower, so does everybody else. If too many people use the water at the same time, everyone's water shuts off, and the same goes for using fans and electricity. When one goes to take an afternoon nap at the LAFTI headquarters, it is often likely that one has chosen to do so during one of the government's "scheduled" power outages. Anywhere from 2-6 hours of the day, both schedule and unscheduled, as Indians would say, "the current is cut".

After finding myself often unable to write due to either a four-hour power outage or the heat exhaustion to follow, I discovered that the workers plan their day to be as efficient as possible. They arrive early in the morning before the "real heat" sets in, and then work until the current is cut, at which point they take an afternoon nap, eat a re-energizing meal, and then carry on with their daily work.

Although there are richer segments of every population that do have the possibility of enjoying such amenities (with generators, etc.), this very small portion is virtually non-existent when compared to the number of people in the United States who do not have to worry about when to take their morning shower or schedule their afternoon nap.

Monday, July 12, 2010


Although it was more than obvious during the lorry blessing and brickmaking ceremony a few weeks back, the ongoing team work and overall sense of community present amongst LAFTI, its staff, and all of its beneficiaries was clearly noticeable today.

When I went outside this morning to participate in the process of making bricks using the fly-ash machine, I was immediately taken aback by the amount of trust and expectation each person in this working line was actually placing on one another. From the first two people who drive a large truck a hundred kilometers to pick up the fly-ash powder itself, to the people who mix it together with the needed ingredients to make it brickworthy, to the people who monitor the brick-making machine to notice and service any possible malfunctions, to the people who place the mixture in the cement molds on a constant and precisely timed basis, to the people who pull each brick out of the rotating mold rack and place each brick on a rolling dolly, to those who push that dolly from the machine to the field and back, stacking each brick perfectly on top of one another. The best part is that even though the procedures mentioned are quite detailed and individually timed, this group of Dalits, those people whom were never even allowed to hammer in a nail to a board in the wall because of their non-existent social status in Indian society, make the process of building houses using this particular machine look next to automatic.

Saturday, July 10, 2010

100 Acres (Land, Women, and Spirituality)

I arrived back to the offices late last night and didn't expect to be doing much LAFTI-related work early in the morning, unless it involved coffee or continual sleep. Although I woke and only intended to see why the loud horn of the foundation's Jeep was being honked so early in the morning, I had five minutes to be in that Jeep that was honking so peacefully at 8am. My Uncle Bhoomikumar had come to town from Cambodia where he works as a psychiatrist and mental health counselor for local youth, and when I went outside to see what was happening, he immediately asked me if I was going along. My grandma overheard and told him that both she and I had intended for me to sleep in for a bit of the morning since I had been traveling a great deal in the last week and was more than slightly behind on the sleep cycle. He said "okay, but if you change your mind since you're already awake, we're leaving in about five minutes".

Instead of going back to sleep like a sleep-deprived person might normally do, I continued on with the conversation by asking my grandmother where we were going, after telling her that I would be ready in five minutes of course. She insisted that I get some rest because my body was not used to so much traveling, but I assured her that I was learning to be just like her, doing what needs to be done even if the work doesn't come at the most convenient of times.

A few hours and over a hundred honks later (because that's just the main form of Indian road communication), we arrived to the village of Pethavelankottakam where Krishnammal was expected to speak. The event began with a several songs and prayers "to honor Amma's presence". After all the musical and other introductions were complete, as I would say now after hearing her speak on numerous different occasion and seeing the results in the past, my grandmother then began to "work her magic". Having listen to her speak to large and small groups in Hindi, Tamil, and English with various translators along the way, I can now confidently say that I have a simple and most basic understanding of the message that she is continually trying to convey. Land, Women, and Spirituality, that's the best Krishnammal speech summary I know. Her speeches intrigue me not because they are amazing, motivational, or more sincere than all others I have ever come across, but because they combine three subjects that are quite uncommon to be combined. Dealing with such a practical and physical problem such as the ownership of land, then solving that dilemma by informing and encouraging some of the most uninformed and discouraged people in Indian society, and doing so all through the notion of finding that of God within (spirituality) is an idea well beyond even the wildest possibilities of any other speaker to be found.

After nearly a full hour of land, women, and spirituality-speaking, it was on to what would later be referred to as the "100 acres of land" village. Almost 20 minutes later and several other Jeeps all filled with various different LAFTI staff members, we arrived at a small paved road surrounded by nothing but 100 acres of "usable land" as Amma would call it. After Amma and "her people" made it clear exactly what is was they wanted with this large plot of land, the really important person parked and stepped our of his highly Americanized shiny silver vehicle. This man was the CEO of a major Indian company who had come to discuss and negotiate (in grandma's mind) the possible sale and price (in grandma's mind) of the surrounding land. Although it seemed as though this CEO would talk to "his people" and get back to LAFTI with formal documents in the next 10 days, the pressure of Amma and nearly all of her staff who had come out to this road just to support her in the endeavor seemed to motivate this business man to move the process alongat a slightly faster pace.

I am not what exactly were the details of this 45-minute movie-like stand off in the middle of this 100-acre plot of land, but the speedy results made me think that maybe Krishnammal gave this man another one of her Land, Women, and Spirituality talks.

Wednesday, July 7, 2010

60 Years

1950. July 6th, 1950 is the day that Krishnammal and Jagannathan married. It is the day on which these two extraordinary individuals decided take each other's hand in marriage and together become a leading example for lasting change in India. Stepping far out of social norms just to be with one another (Krishnammal a Dalit and Jagannathan from a higher caste), these two married in a time of new possibilities. With India a newly independent nation and the teachings of Mohandas Gandhi well established among the country's people, Jagannathan and his wife were well on their way to becoming two of India's most motivated, dedicated, and tenacious Gandhian followers to ever live. Although I did not have the privilege of knowing either Krishnammal or Jagannathan until very recently (the last 20 years), this couple's love today after 60 years of marriage is a love stronger and more enduring than that of any other couple you will ever meet.

Last evening, I arrived back at my aunt's place in Changelpattu. When I woke around 7 am to the persistent discomforts of sunrise mosquitoes and summer heat, morning meals were served slightly differently than on most other days. After overhearing a long prayer sung by my aunt who had just finished meditating in the room upstairs, the simple celebrations began. First was just Jagannathan's normal three- or four- lap circumnavigation of the living room. Although 97, mostly blind, and partially deaf, Jagannathan still walks in circles around the common room like he's leading a march to the sea...hand-spun, white cotton clothing and a walking stick to lead the way. After settling down in his chair on the front porch of Sathya's house a few hours later, his dearest friend and wife of 60 years sat down beside him. Although Jagannathan often has to be repeatedly reminded of who is standing around him and why they are there, one word from Krishnammal and he seems to remember everything.

She smeared a small line of powder across his forehead, dotted it with a red circle nearly half way in between, and without the least bit of hesitation in her heart or voice she just began to sing. Although I did not understand the exact meaning of this prayer or its significance in the context of my grandparents' anniversary, the beauty of my grandma's voice alone left me completely speechless but with all my emotions rolling from my eyes down to my face.

After singing and sitting in silence for a few minutes, we all moved into the dining room for a especially sweet breakfast.Similar in shape and texture to a famous south Indian snack called a "vadi", this round donut-like bread was deep fried this morning with butter and sugar and turned into something like a mini=donut ball. Although not a big fan of any Indian or American sweets generally speaking, this is one sweet I could most definitely go for every now and again...maybe every 60th years or so!

Among the few people present at this morning's small celebration was a friend of my grandparents who has known and worked with them on a myriad of issues for over 60 years. He was a witness to their marriage 60 years ago and is the only person I know who has been a part of Krishnammal and Jagannathan's life from before they were married, to the birth of their their daughter and son, to today when we find ourselves celebrating over half a century of their lives as a couple.

Although there were many aspects of today that t were completely normal (as normal as my grandparents' life will every be), there was also a feeling of something along the lines of magic that would be used to distinguish this morning from any other Tuesday morning.

It is not about how long these two have been married or how many struggles they have overcome as a couple throughout those years It is about the phrase that pours out of my grandma's heart and mouth nearly every time she is away from him for more than a full day:

"I worry about Appa. Because he is all alone, not just physically but in his mind. I worry about him because when he thinks about who is around him; he thinks he is leading a meeting and people have come to gather with him to take up another struggle. Soon I must go and relay to him all the information of our work, I must go to be with him so he knows I am here".

Tuesday, July 6, 2010

Savings From Nothing

Although I mentioned to you in a previous blog the names of the four women I met when I first arrived to LAFTI a few weeks back, one woman’s life and story will never leave my heart. Our real conversation first began when she was staying at the LAFTI office a few nights ago and I invited her to stay in my air conditioned room, since none of the other women were around to be jealous. Although I had noticed at first glance that she was not wearing the traditional red dot in the center of her forehead (a bindi) like the other women, I waited until now to ask the question directly.

She informed me that a few years back when her son was only five-years-old and her daughter just one, her husband slowly developed a fever. He was taken to the doctor several times, and then sent home because the doctor did not think that his illness was severe enough to run expensive and often unnecessary tests. After returning to the hospital with a fever much greater than ever before, test were run and the diagnosis was confirmed. Only five years into her marriage and her son’s life, her best friend and husband had been diagnosed with Jaundice. It was immediately understood by Valayrmathi and her family that they would not be able to afford the needed liver transplant offered only at a hospital in the Far north. Because her daughter was not old enough to understand what happened when she was nearly one-year-old, she is now very saddened when her mother must explained to her that she has to spend several days away from home working in order to provide for the family. Her son, although much more mature and understanding than most other 10-year-old boys one would meet, has lost his father and friend. He has lost his father not only to a curable disease, but to a disease that is treatable by so many of the Indian doctors that we now find in the U.S. The unfortunate irony in the situation is that the medical care we receive from Indian physicians working in the U.S. are often not affordable by India’s own population.

When I was speaking with my grandmother about Valayrmathi and her struggles, we agreed on one thing almost instantaneously. Valayrmathi is about as far as one can get from being a “useless parent”. With a broken heart, two young children, and only enough money for a few necessities, Valayrmathi loves and cares for her family in a priceless sort of way. She does not spoil her children to make up for their sorrows, yet she is a most comforting mother in times of need, and most importantly she provides for her children, the love, education, and encouragement that is needed to move forward from such a tragedy.

Although words cannot truly explain, Valayrmathi is one of the most active and aware mothers I have ever known. When she admitted that one of the reasons she wanted to spend time around me was to learn more English so that she could then relay that knowledge to her children, I was honored and overwhelmed. She works tirelessly and loves endlessly, and that combination has made her one of the strongest, most determined, mothers and friends I know.

While one may not need any further information to understand the complexity and struggles Valayrmathi faces on a daily basis, there is still one more story to share. When I spent some time visiting Valayrmathi’s village last weekend before teaching at the LAFTI Hostel, I was lucky enough to get the V.I.P. tour of her and her father’s house. When first stepping over the concrete ledge amongst a larger rectangle that makes for a doorway, I found myself in the “greeting room”. Not large enough to hold more than three or four people comfortably, I later learned that this is where Valayrmathi and her children sleep. There is a government-provided TV that plays only one channel, and on top of the TV a picture of the Jagannathans surrounded by a traditional string of Indian flowers. They brought me a small plastic white chair, the only one in the house, and insisted that I sit in front of the fan and drink a cup of tea. Because there was only one electrical outlet in the house from what I could see, a few wires had to be twisted and a few cables unplugged until the fan began to blow. Before going on to show me all of the other rooms in the house, she led me outside to the garden. Filled with a few flowers but mostly weeds, her beautiful garden spanned along the side of the house three meters in length but only two feet out because there was only that much space. Glancing at her after she saw me looking at the garden, I had never seen more happiness or pride in her appearance before. She said that “before they weren’t growing at all, but now they’re growing”. I guess when you look at it that way, there’s a lot to be happy about. After we acknowledged the color and beauty of the garden, we made our way back to the inside of the house. Behind the greeting and sleeping room was a small storage room, a small square room that connected to the front and side rooms. Next she showed me the puja or prayer room just off to the left. With only two pictures and a mirror on the wall, the room was nearly empty. She said that one day, after she finished the rest of the house, she hoped to fill the walls with pictures of her favorite Gods. When I asked her about when she might be able to get those pictures she so badly wanted, she started to tell me about her personal finance plan, something most of us college students and even adults seem to lack. We walked into the final room, but it was not yet a room. As I began to asked her where she cooked for her family since this unfinished room seemed to slightly resemble a kitchen, she said “since our kitchen isn’t complete, we cook on a small stove on the floor of my parent’s house just across the street because there is only the two of them living there so they have more space”. Although her explanation was slowly making me swell with sadness, her optimism and determination I mentioned earlier made it impossible to give in. “Every month, after I pay for the food, and my son and daughter’s schooling, and for any low-cost medical expenses for my mother and father, I save.” When I asked her approximately how much she saves each month, she said anywhere from 50 to 150 rupees depending on what other things come up. Just to clarify, that is a savings of approximately $1.20 to $2.60. She said it would take about another 500 rupees to finish the kitchen and maybe 150 to 200 to finish the storage/main room. Again, I just wanted to empty my wallet and help her build her kitchen, but before I could say a thing we were on to visit her parent’s home just across the way. Unlike in her house, there were two small fragile cots sitting at the front this home for her elderly mother and father, but this house was completely made of straw and sticks instead of cement like their daughter’s. Besides the beds, there was a small pot-like stove in the back right corner, and a picture of Valayrmathi’s husband hanging from the wall. Afterwards, they took me out behind the house to her parent’s “back yard”. There were a few trees, some grass, and a very weak fence that bordered the family’s small plot of land. Valayrmathi went on to tell me that although she really liked having the one lemon tree in her own back yard, “it doesn’t give much lemons so sometimes we take from here”. She said that “my children are very close to their grandparents because they were there when my husband died and they now spent a lot of time at their house because of my working.”

So, while we are busy talking about our dream renovations and our blooming gardens, Valayrmathi is busy saving. Passing up the opportunity to purchase a 25-rupee prayer picture and prioritizing her children’s health and education above all, Valayrmathi has created a small pot of savings from virtually nothing.

Monday, July 5, 2010

Squeaky Clean

When I woke this morning to teach go teach in Valivalam, Valayrmathi insisted that we get started a bit earlier this time. Since it was only my third week traveling by bus to this town, I was not yet familiar with the bus times and routes and thus could not really make any argument for us to wait around a few more hours. After burning my mouth with a small cup of coffee that did not have time to cool due to our rushed departure, we ended up getting on a much earlier bus to go into the village. When we arrived to the bus stop, I was acquainted enough with a few landmarks around the area (coffee shops, pharmacies, etc.) that I began walking in the direction of the hostel. Only four or five steps into my short journey, Valayrmathi informed me that there was a surprise waiting for me, but in the opposite direction. Although a single parent providing for two children on a very low income, she had already paid for a small auto rickshaw to take her family and me to the exact location where this surprise was to be discovered. After a very bumpy and dusty 30-minute ride through a village filled with families much worse off than hers, we arrived at her family’s home.

As I have written a separate blog specifically about Valayrmathi and her family, the following paragraphs are meant to address the very specific state of the houses I came across within her village. While she began showing me around the few cement but mostly dirt roads that comprised the main village, I was completely stunned. The place was squeaky clean. The dirt roads were swept, the straw roofs dusted, and all the bicycles lined up neatly in a small covered area beside the house. As I was welcomed into all the homes, the insides of these village houses were cleaner than most any house you would see in the U.S. With sporadic rain, constant heat, strong wind, and continuous dust, the amount of upkeep that must be done in order to maintain such an extraordinary level of cleanliness for houses that are far less enduring than our own is beyond imagination.

I am writing about such a simple thing as village housekeeping because the act itself symbolizes a greater and much more powerful observation. The fact that people living in such a naturally “dirty village” filled with stray dogs and swarming mosquitoes take so much time to make their home and their village beautifully presentable says much more than is indicated by the naked eye. Besides the obvious fact that they value their straw huts and four cement roads far beyond that of the rain, wind, and heat that challenge them, they defy one key characteristic so often found among poor populations. When people find themselves in a situation where survival is much more of a priority than optimism, there is a certain culture of hopelessness that often consumes them to a point of indifference when it comes to clean houses and dust-free roads.

While there still may be a great deal of street begging and slum living, this village serves as an example of true integrity, actual hope, and real development.

Saturday, July 3, 2010

Cyclones & Staircases (A Work In Progress)

After having spent the morning in Sikkavalam village taking pictures and interviewing the locals, we got back into what was now “the foreigners Jeep” and made our way to a completely different area. Ottathatta was the name of this village, and we had spent the last hour and a half driving on unpaved paths and recently rained on access roads so that we could see one of LAFTI’s most recent and ongoing accomplishments. When we stepped down from the Jeep, just behind us there was a cement staircase standing alone, a true indicator of the work in progress that was taking place just a few feet away. There was a half-built straw building that several men were working to construct at the time, a building that once finished would become more living space for the Ottathatta hostel. Inside the already standing cement structure to the left was the part of the hostel where all operations were currently taking place. Upon first entrance, there was a medium-sized open space for anyone to gather around or possibly a space to store the staff’s bikes and such. To the left was the kitchen which also encompassed a small shrine in the back, right corner. Although there was nothing cooking at the time because the children were not present, there was a beautiful and well-colored arrangement of fruits sitting on the ground a few inches away from the prayer area. Coming back into the open space and then walking straight ahead from there, we were introduced to the room where the children learn and sleep, when they are not at school of course. There was a small chalk board on the wall, a few wooden shelved nailed around the room to hold children’s books and backpacks and other supplies, and other than that not much else. After looking around the first three rooms, Gandhi brought my friend and I into a vocational training room he spoke to me about several weeks before. There were only a few women there at the time, but they greeted us quite politely and then continued with their work. This small center was a training facility for women to learn about sewing, funded by some of LAFTI’s friends from Chicago. After a six-month learning phase, the women normally find their way to a different part of the state to sell and have exported those items they have been trained to make.

The reason for the title of this blog is as follows. When we were walking around the previous village earlier in the morning, a man in the village mentioned to us that one of the buildings we were looking which had an enormous crack along its side, had such damage as a result of a cyclone that the area endured nearly thirty years back. Seeing that damaged building there and a large cement staircase standing off the side of the road here, I couldn’t help but to find myself in quite a contemplative state. Although the cyclone-affected building and the lonely staircase may never be cleaned up or corrected, the people just go on. They were working on building this large straw building with a moment of attention paid to the staircase across the street. The families living in tiny huts and struggling to earn a living do so without holding on in the slightest to the possibility that someone might come along and mend the large building that could then be used for some greater community purpose. It seemed as though everything, the unfinished straw building, the stand-alone cement staircase, and the cyclone-affected brick building, was a work in progress. For a country that has overcome one of the world’s most horrific natural disasters and is home to some of the strongest rains several months out of the year, I am completely astonished at the strength, tenacity, and motivation these people have to continue their work with little to no help from the outside world.

No Money For Tea

Although this small incident occurred in the same village interview mentioned one post before, I was not able to process and understand the greater meaning of the situation until several hours later.

When my friend and I were approximately half way through interviewing an elderly couple in the village about the issues mentioned earlier, some of the villagers began to disperse back to their respective places in order to continue the day’s work. As people began to go their separate way, there was somewhat of a communal agreement that it was time for a short break. Although I did not understand the conversation in its entirety due to the language barrier and the fact that this conversational incident was not part of our interview and thus did not need to be translated, I still grew curious enough to ask. While the other villagers were going back to their houses to grab a short minute of shade, a small but very important discussion broke out. The husband of the couple we had been interviewing began to put his shoes on as if he was going out for a mid-day stroll. When his wife wondered where he was going, he said he was going to get some tea. Before she could say another word, he asked his wife for a few rupees so that he could leave and return in time for the rest of our questions. A few second later, his wife informed him that they did not have any money for tea and the man immediately removed his shoes. While the possibility still exists that this man’s wife did not want two American students working with two Indian organizations to waste away her money on two small cups of tea, I am more than slightly inclined to believe otherwise.

The reason this small discussion influenced me so greatly was because it sent a strong message about the family’s real priorities. While we were busy taking up this couple’s precious time asking them a million different questions none of to which answers were going to make their family or the village’s problems magically disappear, they were somehow still focused on serving us tea, making us feel comfortable in their home. The second part of this conversation that affected me with such great intensity was that, throughout our entire interview, despite all of the difficult questions we were asking and problems we were essentially reiterating, this was the first time I encountered a sense of real sadness on their faces. The two of them never seemed so sad or bothered by the fact that they had often experienced times in which they were not able to feed their family. The very thought though, that they could not “properly host” two people who had possibly taken a genuine in their struggles, that was close to unbearable. This heightened sense of sorrow most observably demonstrated by the embarrassment and social withdrawal that took place just seconds after the peak of the conversation between this man and his wife.

While it is most obviously difficult to read, to hear about, or even to witness the many struggles of third-world poverty from afar, there are no words strong enough to explain the feelings one is flooded when interacting with poverty face-to-face. I use poverty as a noun not to displace a village from its surroundings or take a word from its people, but to convey the extreme differentiation between the two realities. One is a reality in which a word and its people exist independently, where we first-world citizens enjoy access to the life of developing-world citizens only through books, politically-biased news media, and a few pictures of famished children when are pockets are full for the “giving season”. The second of these actualities is the type in which people must confront the first reality, where they must live in those places mentioned in our books, see with their own eyes those villages shown on our news, and converse and attempt to understand the lives of those families seen in our photos. When we have consciously and honestly chosen the latter, we have only just begun down the road to understanding the meaning of poverty and all its various conjugations.

Straw Huts to Brick Buildings (Sikkavalam Village)

The day began with two. A good friend of mine from American University has family in India had decided to spend a portion of her summer working with the DAAN Foundation, an organization looking at many of the same issues that LAFTI addresses. As part of her field work, she was assigned to work and stay in an area just a few kilometers away from Kuthur. After exchanging our Indian numbers via email a few weeks in to both our travels, we were able to meet up for one weekend in early July. She arrived on a Friday, and we spent the afternoon not doing much more then enjoying each other’s company, in English. I can’t even say that I remember anything specific about our conversation that night, only that it didn’t demand nearly as much of our efforts with regards to communication because both of us were speaking our first language. Although It may appear of little significance to anyone else, after spending the last 3 weeks around people who only speak Tamil and myself not understanding more than a few simple words of this South Indian language, it is safe to say that we were both more than happy to see one another for this English-speaking reason alone.

Because both LAFTI and DAAN’s work involve land, agriculture, and housing, we decided that we should find a way to make our weekend into a little more than meaningless English conversation. Around 8am on Saturday, my friend and I got into the LAFTI Jeep and were driven to Sikkavalam village several kilometers away. Although I had visited this village the previous weekend to take photos of particular LAFTI projects, both my friend and I were going with the intent of actually conversing (with Gandhi as our translator) with those who live there. Primarily a Hindu community, this village consisted of about eight or nine houses in the visible area. In terms of LAFTI’s work in this locality, there are several of the organization’s beneficiaries who have commuted the small distance from this village to Kuthur to take part in the brick-making process, and who then spent the following months actually building the houses they now live in. It seems that for most families, after transporting the approximately 11,000 bricks required to construct each home, it took two to four months to complete one house depending on the given circumstances (season, number of family members contributing, etc). I did not need an in-depth conversation with any of the villagers to understand the true transformation that has taken place in this neighborhood over the last few years. Next to every 11,000-brick house was a straw hut. Although some of the families still use their old houses, their huts, to give home to the family’s cattle, the bigger and much brighter smiles present on these villager’s faces when they are standing beside their “LAFTI houses” need no further explanation.

Because we had arrived to the Sikkavalam area just before the people in the village were beginning their day, it was suggested that go to another section of the village and get more information just a few miles away. This other part of the village although not so relevant in terms of LAFTI housing projects, holds great importance when it comes to the world of farming and agriculture. After arriving in the area, we were invited onto the porch of a middle-age couple’s house to discuss and interview them about issues related to how farming, water access/quality, and land ownership have changed in the last ten years. Although it was hard to get individual farmer responses because the rest of the village members were constantly crowded around and contributing out of their own excitement, we were able to conclude a few foundational facts that nearly every individual living and working in the area had recently experience. During the mid to late 90’s, most all farmers were using organic manure to maintain and develop their crops. Over the past four to five years however, farmers have been introduced to a combination of organic and chemical manure used both for their paid farming work, as well as for their personal use. With regards to the farmer’s personal crops, the cost of owning and maintain a cow to produce organic manure has risen steadily over the last ten years. In terms of using chemical manure in the line of work, it all comes back to profits. With the climate change India and the rest of the world has recently experienced, farming as a business has felt some serious downturns. Chemical manure, in the short run, is able to boost crop productivity per season and bring in a good portion of that recently lost income lost in previous years. As many of the farmers mentioned throughout the interview though, chemical manure is not good in the long-run, for anyone’s future. It produces more of very specific crops, but not of better quality (sometimes even worse), and those chemicals found in this specific mix of manure are slowly but surely result in severe devastation to the soil and land to which they are given. In addition to the people’s crops, some of the drinking water used by the farmers and their families comes from sources drawn upwards from the ground, adding yet another and even more direct danger when it comes to the effects of using this chemical manure. So, while these farmers may be able to grow their crops and provide for their families this year, there is nothing close to “a sure thing” when it comes to next year’s harvest.

To end the visit on a positive note, there is one danger involving food and farming that this village in particular has not yet had to overcome. While the chemical manure is thought to be problematic or dangerous for the reasons mentioned above, prawn farms possess an even greater danger to the farmer’s and their families. When multi-national companies make their way into the area and exploit any available worker’s labor in the name of American eaten “shrimp”, often unknown to those who actually it these curly little creatures, irreversible damage has been done. After a 14-year-old girl and her mother have finished a 16-hour day shelling shrimp for a wage below belief, the land on which the prawn farm was initially established is no longer usable, and the company moves on. Not only are the chemicals used in the shrimp-shelling process extremely toxic, but they destroy the once-used “farming land” to a point of no return. These already poor families who have been continuously struggling to keep their crops and families a-float, wake up to discover that their land has been bought out by some billion-dollar CEO who exploits, pollutes, and then leaves behind a previously healthy plot of land and all of its workers, only to go find the next. Although the village I have been discussing does not currently face this threat, only because there are not currently any prawn farms nearby, the possibilities for danger and displacement that so many farmers and their families live in fear of is beyond my own imagination and possibly yours.

Friday, July 2, 2010

Community Space

I just wanted to take a moment to share a few observations that serve as a foundation for the vast cultural differences any individual is to encounter when traveling abroad.

While the following example may sound slightly strange or unusual compared to most anything that occurs in the states, it is quite normal and even a mundane sort of occurrence here in India. When I arrived to India several weeks back, I ended up having to go to a nearby shop to purchases a few necessities, one of which was soap. After placing the small bar on top of its box and setting the box on my sink, I just assumed I would leave it there for daily use, as I was the only person sleeping and living in my room. Sleeping maybe, but living most certainly not. When I woke the next morning and found that my soap was no longer sitting where it was left, I went outside and asked the manager where small, blue, bubbly bar might be. Just minutes later Bhardi, the boys hostel warden who I met last weekend when I was teaching came dancing into my room with a bar of soap. He went on to explain that because someone else was using the soap at his house when he was rushing to get ready, he thought he would use mine. Although I initially thought he was making a joke, he was actually being completely honest. Since I had a fresh bar of soap in my room, there was no sense in him purchasing a new one from the store while someone was using his just for that one morning. After overcoming a slight bit of shock and upon further reflection, it was quite obvious to me that Bhardi wasn’t doing anything more strange or unusual than that which was most efficient and utilized the smallest amount of resources.

This entire example is meant not only to convey the fact that there are millions of people out there more efficient and utilizing far less resources than you and I, but that there is an overwhelming environment of community space in India that allows for such events as the “soap situation” to occur. So, while it may not have been my natural tendency to invite a stranger into my bathroom to take and wash his hands with my soap, pronouns to which we as Americans attach such great meaning do not influence or shape Indian life in nearly the same way.

Monday, June 28, 2010

Motorcycles, Mangoes, and Chai

Since the last time my family and I traveled to India in 1998, three things remain exactly the same. Motorcycles take over the streets as many people’s main form of transportation, constantly weaving their way through the overcrowded streets of Chennai and Mumbai. Mangoes are to be found in most any village, at every dinner table, regardless of the time of day. Chai and all its aroma are omnipresent at nearly every train station throughout all of India, often overpowering the ghastly smells of the nearby sewers.

I am writing about these three aspects of Indian culture for two particular reasons. With a gap of over ten years between now and my last time in India, these three things serve as an unshaken foundation of familiarity. When I find myself alone on a seven hour train ride from the LAFTI offices to my aunt’s house (a trip I have taken nearly every five days since my arrival), the smell of tongue-burning chai is actually refreshing. Watching the chai sellers cool a cup of this tea by pouring it between two different cups nearly four feet apart reminds me of why I loved the stopping part of each train ride so very much. Being a picky eater and someone who has never liked even the least bit of Indian spice, eating mangoes now reminds me of my childhood survival food when it came to the common curries and chutneys served almost every morning and night. Seeing motorcycles going in every direction at speeds not appropriate for discussion, I am constantly reminded of the thrill and risk I love so greatly when it comes to traveling.

While these three characteristics of Indian life sing a beautiful song of familiarity that is most comforting from dawn until dusk, they also possess a greater and much deeper meaning than is revealed in everyday life. While it may occur possibility only in my own imagination, motorcycles, mangoes, and chai seem to represent three of the most fundamental elements of human life. Motorcycles, as one of many modes of transport represent our ability as individuals to move from place to place. Whether it is by horse and cart, in a train or in a car, or via motorbike managing the overcrowded dirt roads of southeastern India, we move. Mangoes symbolize survival. Survival not just for me as an 8-year-old child who wouldn’t eat anything else but these scrumptious green and orange ovals, but for anyone and everyone who is living today. Hand-picking our fruits from a tree, cutting our meats with a machete, or purchasing our vegetables in pre-packaged tightly sealed supermarket bag, we are given life from these foods without which we could not exist. Chai signifies not so much a way of going or doing as much as it does a way of being, not a physical attribute of life but more a form of hospitality. While I may find myself drinking three to four cups of chai with little attention paid to its true intention, chai, coffee, tea and biscuits, and a myriad of other similar traditions around the world all seem to embody a sense of our personalities as a whole. The way we are welcomed and the way in which we are sent off are more or less indicative of who we are, and directly express the social and emotional interaction we desire and value in daily life.

So while motorcycles, mangoes, and chai may simply be just three different things with no relation to one another but all omnipresent in Indian culture, they represent and mean much more to me. They stand not only as strong signals of India and the country’s everyday way of life, but as symbols of how all of us as human beings move, survive, and interact.

Saturday, June 26, 2010

Out Of Place

I am writing this short blog post only to be honest, honest with you as my readers, honest with those I am meeting with and learning from here in India, honest with those I am teaching, and honest with myself. A week and a half into my travels, I feel uncomfortably out of place.

Although I was welcomed warmly by the LAFTI community upon arrival, it is not an easy community to make one’s way into, let alone fit in. When I approached my mother and father with this particular frustration, they explained the following. This is a community of people who, until very recently, were deemed a curse to the streets and villages in which they were born. They have served endlessly with no return for their services, have had their energies exploited for the demands of the landlords to which they have been bonded, and have lost their livelihoods only for the short-term financial benefit of a million multinational corporations that damage their lands in a way that is really and truly, irreversible.

Now that I am personally understanding and living with those who have experienced the social effects of a suppressed peoples’ history, it is no longer a surprise to me that I should feel out of place, and that knowledge is a relief in and of itself. No matter how brown my skin gets, regardless of how much Tamil I learn, apart from the amount of time I spend living and working at the LAFTI headquarters, I will never live as they have had to, I will never be an insider. Even after traveling back and forth for 32 years and being someone who is greatly dedicated to and educated about the Dalit community and its struggles, my own father is still seen as a guest and outsider by most all the staff and village workers. I think the realization that made the majority of my frustrations subside was that being an outsider is not necessarily a bad thing, nor were the characteristics I associated with my initial definition of an outsider completely correct. Being a so-called “outsider” is nothing more significant or meaningful than being on the outside of a history in relation to those who have lived inside it. Understanding that I am on the outside not because I am disliked or unwelcomed, but because there is really no way in. In the wider picture though, I am simply grateful that I have not had to exist in, struggle though, and recover from the history in which the Dalit community has lived for so long. Just as I am outside their house, outside of their history, they are outside mine, and for that there is no consequence of dislike or negative judgment but only a key to a door of which no copies can ever be made.

Friday, June 25, 2010

An Environment All Its Own (Valivalam Hostels)

A few days into my stay, my grandma and I found fifteen minutes free to sit out front and chat about just a few of the things both of us have been doing since last we met. When she asked me about my time spent in Jordan before coming to India, children then became the main focus of the conversation. When I was busy telling her about the Children’s Art and Music Group I helped out with in Amman, slowly her eyes began to grow bigger and brighter. She was shining in this particular way not just because she was proud to hear about me doing such work, but because she had an idea of her own related to children. I don’t want anyone to assume that she doesn’t smile on a daily basis because she certainly does and has one of the most beautiful smiles I know, but there is a certain change in her presence (smile, tone, eyes, etc.) when Krishnammal Jagannathan comes up with a plan. Her idea was as follows. Being that she and I were the only two English-speaking people living and working at LAFTI this summer and she was keenly aware that her work with the various hostels she has established over the years is no longer her main focus as most of her energy is now directed towards issues revolving around land, she decided to make me the extra hands she no longer had the energy to utilize. She would make me the Valivalam LAFTI Hostels English Teacher. Although I was a bit intimidated by the idea when it was first presented, my grandma is a woman of her word and when she says she has a plan she has already envisioned the results of that plan. So, even if I was slightly hesitant in my response because I am someone whose only teaching experience consists of showing children how to play Happy Birthday and the ABC’s on an electric keyboard, I knew that whatever her plan was, she would utilize these “extra hands” and make it happen.

When I first arrived to the LAFTI Girls Hostel in Valivalam about an hour away by bus, I was greeted with coffee and introductions. Although you will find that most people here in India prefer to drink tea rather than coffee in the morning, the children already knew so much about me via Poongodai and Valayrmathi (current and previous “hostel warden”, respectively) that they purchased a small bag of milk and prepared a large cup of coffee for me just to fill my American addiction.

“My name is Sathya and I study 6th standard”. Although different for every child with regards to her name and level of study, this was the foundation as well as the limit to the majority of these students’ English. As I have learned both from academic and practical experience, it is very common for two issues regarding education in a developing nation to come about, one of which I would be facing with much more regularity teaching at the hostel. The first is that children who have only attended school intermittently for whatever reasons (farm work, caring for their families, financial problems, etc.), and then find themselves in a position to return to their studies later on, often end up the victims of severe embarrassment and humiliation. There is a very strong and discouraging stigma that accompanies an 11-year-old girl who goes to school and finds herself sitting and learning beside five and six –year-old students who are at the “normal” age for their grade.

Although I was very aware of this first issue coming into the hostel as I was assigned to teach students ranging in age from three to eighteen, I was a bit surprised to find that the exact opposite environment had been created. This was a very unique group of students to say the least. A good number of these girls were without one of their parents, and most of those parents physically existent in their children’s lives would be referred to by Amma as “useless parents”. When we think of our parents’ insistence that we get up and go to school, whether our education is to be found in our home, at the public high school, or at a private university in the nation’s capital, we are more than privileged. After asking a few questions, Amma went on to explain that “useless parents” are those mothers and fathers who, after facing the reality of being illiterate and uneducated themselves, lack any sort of support for their children’s education when their children need it most. She summarized her feeling on the issue towards the end of our conversation.

“When illiteracy and ignorance are all around you, you must rise above. You must give and support your children in the opportunity for education, to empower them with the possibility for a decent and different way of life”.

The annoyance of our morning alarms that wake us students to walk to class with our hair soaking wet wearing sweat pants and the only clean t-shirt on the floor, is a million times more than most all these students will ever wake up to. This group of girls did not have an issue when it came to the age stigma I mentioned before, but were so unaware of their own educational identities relative to one another that they almost appeared unmotivated. Spanning in age from preschool to college, these students did everything as a family, far different from the type of academic environment and encouragement you and I are acquainted with in the United States. And that which I initially mistook to be a lack of motivation was actually very strong but quite unfocused motivation.

With regards to my actual first teaching experience here at the LAFTI Girls Hostel in Valivalam, I found my way into this 44-student family, and that is enough for one day. Today wasn’t about teaching as much as it was about learning. Learning about my students, enough to understand but not too much to pry, but more importantly allowing them the time and space to learn about me. As the only foreign teacher to have ever entered into their home, trust was key. Although I am not yet a woman of school books and lesson plans, these girls (my new students!) have provided me with the warmest, most loving learning environment a first-time teacher could ever have.

An Indian Princess

Although I have not yet kissed one of the four frogs who find safety in my room for the two or three days between my showering, I somehow still ended up a princess. For someone who enjoys complete anonymity, who likes being one of a hundred to cross an overcrowded crosswalk in down town DC all with people I will never see again, being an Indian princess bodes quite a drastic lifestyle change when it comes to my five-year plan.

In all seriousness though, I have never been treated in quite this manner, and even if I have been spoiled by a grandmother or aunt from time to time, it was never a lasting environment. I don’t want to spend too much time discussing the fact, but I am most definitely getting a different perspective on Indian life this time around. From blessing lorries in the morning to people bowing down to me on the street at night, there are several different contributors to this royalty treatment I am experiencing. First and foremost, I am a guest and Indian culture treats guests in a manner much more hospitable than one could ever find in the U.S. (probably considered insistent or rude in many other places around the world). Although I am my grandma’s adopted granddaughter and on some level considered family, I am still speaking a foreign language and coming from a far away nation which makes me a guest in LAFTI’s book. Secondly, I am American citizen and that alone brings about some amount of attention greater than any to be found when I am living in the states. Not only am I an American, but I am daughter to two of the most loved and respected Americans my grandmother and the LAFTI community has ever known….according to them, of course. To quote her exact words, “Ellen and David are great souls…I have never encountered anyone as loving and patient as these two”. Lastly, I am a native northern Indian originally born in Mumbai (Bombay), and with a skin tone lighter than all the rest, it is not something to be easily hidden. I am a “wealthy” northern Indian who has come to live and work in a village of poor Dalit men and women, a village where the population spends most of its time, thanks to my grandmother and the establishment of LAFTI, making bricks and building houses, something they were not even thought to do only 20 years before now. Lastly, and most importantly, I am considered a girl not a woman in India (not yet married, still a student, etc.) and the grandmother I have come to stay with is the founder and director of a revolutionary land reform organization that has changed the lives of thousands from the land up, literally. If I am related to her, whether it is through my American mother and father who Amma adopted and then they adopted me, I am her granddaughter and apparently that counts for a lot.

On a drastically different side of the equation, I am just like any other Indian when I’m not an American, a guest, or a granddaughter. When I go to get on a bus, although my skin color is still lighter than most because I am in the siren heat of south eastern India and I spend most of my time in the states locked inside a classroom missing out on the sun that would give me my “natural Indian tone”, I really don’t stand out. I am wearing Indian clothes, one of the four women places a stick-on bindi on my forehead every morning before braiding my hair like all other Indians, and I sound Indian enough in my pronunciation of the town I want a ticket to get to that no one seems to sense my being a foreigner. When I step out of the bus station, I am crammed in between most everyone else fighting to get on and off at that time, something that most Americans, guests, or member of some royal family couldn’t get away with.

The reason I mention all of the above circumstances is to share with you the truly unique lens through which I am viewing India and Indian people, and I thought it necessary to explain that specific lens before I go on to make any observations or analysis. While I am slightly uncomfortable with the idea of being an Indian Princess, it seems only to be a part-time job. Look like I can have my Indian cake and eat it too!

Wednesday, June 23, 2010

"All Day Staff Meeting"

While you learn about the different business cultures that exist around the world, no one ever tells you about this one. Let me just say before I go on to tell of this strange “all day staff meeting” as my grandmother called, it was an experience. I have never seen so much organization and social cohesion come out of such chaos and disorganization, but I guess that’s just the Indian way. It’s not that I wasn’t aware of some of the different festivities or prayers that might take place throughout the day, based on the uniqueness of the morning’s ceremony, but my grandma redefines the word “meeting” for a business environment all its own.

Although I could not understand much of what was taking place during this “all staff meeting”, I was able to understand a few simple things. I am sure that the meeting consisted of much more conversation than discussion, introductions took place at the end instead of before, there was a prayer every 30 minutes or so, a very flexible break was given for chai and “mid-day meals” part way through, and overall a lot got done. Unique is an understatement, but as a business student who hopes to find herself traveling the world for work, unique is just one of many business environments I will have to adjust to If I have any hope of communicating with those around me, understanding and strongly believing that communication is the foundation of business. Although it may not be the way you or I might conduct business in the United States or Slovakia or South Africa, it is the time spent in those environments dissimilar from our own that allow us to observe, understand, and apply our own cultural learnings in order to better the foundation of international interaction as a whole.

Brick Making & Lorry Blessing

Indians wake up early, and this morning I was enthusiastically reminded of my heritage. This reminder was not brought to me in the form of a gentle tap on the door or morning coffee (although I found my way to a cup of that shortly thereafter), but with a very lively ceremony just outside my window. This was not a ceremony for me, nor was it anything resembling that of a ceremony one might find anywhere else in the world. Only at the LAFTI headquarters in Kuthur, India at 8am would one be awakened to come outside and bless a truck. The thing is, this was not just any truck, it was a LAFTI lorry. A combination between several different donors, all LAFTI workers and staff were gathered around two small but highly decorated lorries that were sitting side by side on the dirt foundation between the main office and the kitchen. These two donated lorries are to be used for carrying bricks between LAFTI where the bricks are being made using a fly-ash brick-making machine (also donated), and the villages of the beneficiaries where the actual houses are being built. The lorries could not be used, however, until they had been blessed, and that’s where I come in. As an American, a guest, and as my Indian grandmother’s especially blessed and adopted granddaughter, together with Amma put our hands to a small bowl of fire, then immediately after to our face, dotted our foreheads with white and red powder, stood for a prayer, and then posed with the community and its newest lorries for a few photos. After this, I was informed that I should go back to my room and rest while those who had awaited my blessing would now go off and load bricks into these two newly blessed lorries.

From giving a speech on water filters to blessing a lorry, I went from feeling highly useful to completely useless. Although I enjoyed the honor of being such an important part of the brick making/lorry blessing ceremony, I must be honest and say that I was a bit frustrated with the possibility that I had come all the way to South India and to the LAFTI headquarters only to “bless things”. After some conversation with my parents in America who have spent much time in India and working with LAFTI throughout their years, I was informed that I was very lucky that I had figured out that this would be one of my main duties so early on in my stay. As my dad said during the conversation, “it took me 12 years to discover that blessing things was one of the best things I could do”. Talk about an internship description being changed, I decided to dive into the idea of being a “blesser” with an honest amount of hesitation, but with a big enough smile to make up for it.

Friendly Water For The World

As I was unpacking and packing between returning from Jordan and leaving for India, my father sent a small package of which two items were to be delivered to two specific men working at the LAFTI headquarters. The second morning I was in Kuthur, I opened the package that David so insisted I pack which contained, along with a few other things such as sunflower seeds and the strongest bug repellant known to exist (I shall explain later), two white t-shirts with some blue picture and slogan on the front. “Friendly Water For The World” is what was written on the shirt be exact, with a drawing of the globe and a person using a water filter, the picture in its entirety designed by a nine-year-old homeschooled girl in the states.

To move along with the story, these two shirts were intended for the two men managing the biosand water filter project at LAFTI. Originally designed by an inventor at the Univeristy of Calgary in Canada, and brought to India by our Quaker friends Del and Sue Livingston out of Tacoma, WA, these filters that can remove up to 99% of bacteria and viruses from water are virtual genius. Using as mentioned in the title, a biosand layer that sits at the top of sand and gravel inside a cement molded three-foot rectangle with a small white tube coming out of the front, these filters are now being distributed in several different countries around the globe. Dell and his wife are part of a new non-profit organization Friendly Water For The World chaired by my father, and travel several times a year to Kenya and Burundi in Central Africa to distribute and train people to make and use these filters. They are made originally in a blue metal mold that can be taken and used to make a million more (one per day) using a little cement and water. I hate to make the whole thing sound so simple, but it really is just that simple. With dysentery as a common cause of death (especially among children) in the area where LAFTI is located, and occasional cholera outbreaks and epidemics in the state of Tamil Nadu where LAFTI does the majority of its work, these low cost, minimal resource-using biosand water filters ultimately act as life savers.

These two men I later presented the t-shirts to are in charge of making sure the numerous water filters sitting at the LAFTI head quarters are being distributed as needed. It is not that they are being given to every woman in every village, although that would be nice, but that every project location (every office, every hostel, and every gathering space) is equipped with at least one of these filters for that particular community’s use. And when the new homes LAFTI is building are completed, each will have a biosand filter. After presenting the two men with their t-shirts and asking them to pour a few cups of water using the filter, we all opened the filter to find a large population of ants and other insects that were keeping it from running smoothly. Although I understood that not all the people at the office where using this particular filter on a regular basis, the people who do use it every now and again were unaware of the filter’s needed upkeep. Even if one is not using the filter regularly, the filter must be fed a bucket of water every day or two in order to keep the biosand layer strong. When I asked why the workers were not using the filter more often, they said that during the rainy season or when there are a few rainy evenings in a row, they collect that water in buckets and then scoop it using a tin cup out of there. What they seem not to understand is that the buckets they are collecting in are filled with the same water-borne diseases that one would find in a nearby stream or river. After translation help from Gandhi, the workers seemed to understand that if they weren’t going to use the filter on a daily basis they at least needed to dump few buckets of water through the filter in the morning or evening. Anyways, although I have not yet convinced them to fill their glasses from the filter with every meal, we have compromised that they will at least maintain the filter in order to use it when they are so inspired. As I was a newcomer to the LAFTI community, it was not in my interest to alienate myself by forcing them to complete a task about which they were not truly understanding of the reasons behind. So, we poured a few jugs of water into the filter to get it running again and called it a day. This was the beginning of my real work, of my journey down the path of real development, learning and understanding the very detailed line between helping, imposing, and offending. Even if using the filter is in my view and others, scientifically the best thing to do, all transitions take time and a feeling of ownership over each transition is often the most crucial motivator for any changes to be made. I think today, we agreed on the establishment of mutual education and understanding, and that is no simple task on either end. They were able to understand why the filter is important in my view, and I was able to recognize that most all of the men and their families who I was speaking with have been perfectly fine (well, relative speaking, until they get sick) without it until this point and thus using this filter would be a change not only for them as individuals but for their community as a whole.