Friday, January 20, 2012

Returning to the states

Currently, I'm working on being the most awkward person I know in my life, and I'm doing pretty well in this contest. When strange men who seem to be twice my age flirt with me on the train, my tactic is to show them how weird I am to throw them off. On one particular instance, I proceeded to show a man all the photos on my camera phone of my pet tortoise (of which I have an embarrassingly large number of photos). 

This tactic, however, may backfire as some guys are into the 'crazy factor', which is apparently something I possess (according to my best friend in a discussion on who would win in a physical fight). OR they have something worse which is known as 'desperation'. Whenever I feel uncomfortable or nervous I have a tendency to smile and talk more, which gives the totally opposite impression.  To be honest, I have only recently returned to a place where I am regularly speaking English with educated people, so I'm a little thrown off by any and all conversation in English. This usually results in me getting really nervous and stressed out and saying whatever comes to mind. 

Examples include relating a story about hamsters that my 15 year old cousin told me. Among other conversational topics I include my digestive health or some depressing anecdote about violence against women in rural India. I can't keep my mouth shut, and more often than not, I relish the time I have alone where my conversational faux paus are nonexistent or in the presence of my ever-forgiving mother. 

I should probably get out more.

Tuesday, July 19, 2011

Anita’s Story: The Power of the Collective

Note: Names have been changed

The expressions of worry etched on every single face revealed the tension the situation presented. In a way, the concern reflected the solidarity the group had developed over the past three weeks. If one person was out, the play would not be the same; it wouldn’t retain its impact, its energy. Every single participant was essential. It was not just that the play could not go on. It could have gone on quite easily. It was, instead, that at the culmination of our month of hard work and practice, their collective glory in the performance of the drama in our own village was at risk of being torn apart. They were in this together.
Jagruti, ( a small rights-based NGO operating in rural villages of south India, had recruited high school students and a few odd ones from the village of Mangenkoppa to put together an educational street play on child marriage. Mangenkoppa, a small village of less than 3,000 people, is located in the mango growing heartland of Khanapur Taluk in Belgaum District in northern Karnataka. This is a region where child marriage, domestic violence, and school drop outs are normal, and oftentimes, encouraged within the communities.
The students came to the small Jagruti field office every day for three weeks. A group of youngsters, mostly teenagers, putting together a play was no piece of cake. They fought, they got distracted easily, and even got so fed up that they cancelled play practice. Slowly, however, with proper leadership from Jagruti and a growing feeling of camaraderie, they abandoned their household and farm duties, put aside their insecurities, and performed the play, Stop Child Marriage. What was once considered a drag became the highlight of their summer. They even achieved near-celebrity status, cycling through five villages and performing in each location. Most importantly, they were a team.

Interestingly, or inevitably, patriarchy, the very force driving child marriage, was also preventing them from being a team. Of course, patriarchy is not a ghost, a monster, a creeping conceptual shadow that haunts us during the night. While the concept of patriarchy is intangible and points to no singular culprit, its effects are very real, with manifestations in every corner of life. The last night of the performance of the play in their hometown, patriarchy reared its ugly head against the performance of Stop Child Marriage by the youth of Mangenakoppa.
Anita’s older brother put his foot down and did not allow her to participate in the play. Here are the facts: Anita is 23 years old. She was married at the age of 18, and then beaten up and thrown out of her husband’s home, pregnant and alone. Fortunately, her family took her back in to their home, where she now looks after all the household responsibilities and takes care of her 3 year old son. She also works for Jagruti and is the only member of her household with a reliable paycheck every month.
Her older brother, on the other hand, spends most of his time in Bangalore, working, although no one in his family knows quite what he does, nor do they see a single paise of what he earns. About a year ago, he borrowed Rs 1,000 from Anita, who had taken out the loan to buy a mixer for the home, and never paid it back. Anita, after asking for the money over and over again, is still paying his debt off. Despite this, he has the power and authority to tell Anita what she is allowed to do, and more frequently, what she is not allowed to do. Why is she and others in her house listening to her older brother?
The role of the male in village households is supreme and considered almost divine. To contradict a male in the household is close to sacrilege. Super Freakonomics authors put it aptly when saying that “giving birth to a baby boy [in India] is like giving birth to a 401(k) retirement fund”, while a baby girl “means relabeling the retirement fund a dowry fund”. The patriarchical system of the Indian family dictates that males of the household stay in their birth home and take care of the parents and the family property. Having more opportunities outside the home, they are generally the breadwinners, thereby considered the head of the household. Females move to their husband’s home where oftentimes their voices are silenced, her work and presence undervalued, and her wants and desires considered unimportant in either her husband’s or birth home. Even though Anita’s brother does not contribute to the family income, his mere ‘maleness’ makes him the jewel of the family. In him his parents have instilled the hope that they will be taken care of in their old age after a lifetime of back-breaking work. This means, unfortunately, that the pattern of patriarchy conspires to devalue the contribution that Anita makes to her family and continue supporting her brother’s lifestyle, which does little to benefit other members of the household.

Interestingly, Anita, too, did not want to participate in the play in front of everyone. She admitted that she feared the backlash from society that her performance might produce. Being a once married woman, she carries the burden of her ex-husband’s betrayal everywhere she goes and in whatever she does. She has internalized the village gossip that says her life is over as it is not proper for once married women to re-marry. In her mind, why should she feed malicious village gossip by performing in a play with high schoolers? It is much easier and safer to choose not to participate and thereby, escape the daggers of wagging tongues.
Her defeatist attitude is fed by the lack of opportunities available to her to regain dignity in the eyes of society. The social stigma of being a battered and rejected wife remains with Anita, even though she has returned to live with her parents and works as a community organizer. This fear of ‘gossip’, that ‘people might talk’, when a woman stands up for herself or her values prevent women from entering and participating in the public sphere.

So what is the solution to ameliorate this all-pervasive mentality that oppresses women at every step of their lives? One answer is developing a feeling of solidarity, that the well-being of one is essential to the well-being of all. That evening, the youngsters of Stop Child Marriage were shocked, outraged, and upset at the thought of continuing the play without Anita. ‘She’s in the best scene, we can’t cut her out’, ‘at this point, everyone is irreplaceable’, the participants murmured with their foreheads creased with concern. When Anita’s brother decided to intervene, a crowd had already gathered in anticipation of the youths’ performance. It was getting quite late and they were getting restless. The street play crew was beginning to get anxious that their friends and neighbors would leave without witnessing the fruit of the youths’ work. No, they decided with finality, they wouldn’t let Anita’s brother get in the way of their hard work and excitement.

The evening proved to be a victory. All of the participants of the street play crowded into Anita’s tiny home, surrounding Anita’s brother. Many others also came immediately to support the participants and Anita’s involvement in the play. In the end, an elderly woman succeeded in roundly berating Anita’s older brother for ruining the evening for the play participants and for the community.
Some days after the play, Anita’s older brother was overheard praising Anita’s performance. Anita, too, was surprised when she suffered no backlash for her decision to participate in Stop Child Marriage. She said that even though she was so nervous before the play, she felt more confident after the performance, especially with the support of her team and Jagruti. The fight inside her home ended up being a victory for the street play as well as for resistance against oppressive mentalities. The play was a big hit, but most of all, the process of collective action proved to be an effective means to the path towards breaking the shackles of patriarchy.

Thursday, February 17, 2011

Mornings in Ukkali

The rooster crows about a half an hour before the sun actually rises, and I somewhat resent it every morning for being so unpunctual. In romanticized versions of country life, the rooster is supposed to crow exactly at the crack of dawn, but this rooster seems to be in a slightly different time zone.

I am in a haze at this point in the early morning, not able to remain sleeping, but unable to pry my eyes open without discomfort, rubbing out the sleep sand. My neck feels stiff, and my knees are sore, for apparently no reason at all. I’ve been having strange, disturbing dreams lately, and try to shake the unpleasantness created by my subconscious during the night.

Allah ho Akbar breaks the stillness of the early morning. The voice is deep, clear, and slightly out of tune, but the effect is beautiful, the rich tenor tones reaching out like tree branches to the sky. Some days it mixes with the bhajans from the temple, clashing at first, then resulting in a strange, somewhat eerie harmony. Each time, I get goosebumps.

I open my eyes to the sound of soft swooshes of the broom from downstairs and the voices of people calling to each other below. It’s still dark. The clanging of the aluminum and steel pots climbs up from the ground to the top floor of the Hanamshetti’s home, where I sleep, protected from the chilly breeze, dogs, and dust. The sounds from below translate into images; I imagine Roopa’s mother squatting in front of her corrugated tin roof home, scrubbing her rice pot with gravel, and Roopa searching for her school uniform all the while hefting her little baby brother on her hip. The thut thut thutting of Anita Akka making rotis for her sister’s lunch in the fields and the slushing of water spilling out of plastic pots balanced on women’s hips remind me that I got it easy.

I finally manage to shrug off my covers and peek outside my window. Women are busy as ever, chopping firewood, putting rangoli in the entrances of their homes, or preparing food for a long day working in the fields. I can see the red sun beginning to peer shyly over the coconut and tamarind tree horizon, making it look a bit like a cantaloupe rind. A sleepy fog hangs lightly over the village, like a protective blanket. As it ascends higher, the sun gets braver, its brightness spilling color into the town. The fog dissipates, replaced by smoke from cracks in tin roofs and dust picked up by the wheels of tums tums and ox carts.I pull my sweater off and fold up my sheets, then head downstairs to start my day.

Friday, December 31, 2010

On Skin Lighteners

Some say the blacker the berry, the sweeter the juice,

I say the darker the flesh then the deeper the roots

 – Tupac Shakur

Thanks to a fellow Indicorps 'fella' who put this in her report.

Monday, December 13, 2010

Dear India,

How do you manage to cram so many people in one country; so many people that there is no concept of private space, that I can’t help but offer my lap to the old grandma determined to fit into an overfilled auto, that even going to take a shit is a social event?How is it that when I’m walking through a sea of peopleI feel so alone? 

Your multiplicities bewilder, amuse, inspire, stimulate, and frustrate me. I am humbled by the resourcefulness and determination of your citizens and feel helpless by the normalization of society’s greatest tragedies: hunger, violence, servitude, the list goes on. How does one robbed of dignity recover it in your arms?
How come I don’t see very much of you in me? When I refer to you in Ukkali, I say “our India”, then correct myself and say “your India”, because I’m not sure I know what ‘my’ India looks like and if it is anything like their India.

When will I stop referring to your people as ‘them’? Can it ever transform to ‘us’?  I’m waiting for the day when I truly internalize the reality that my well-being is tied up in your people’s well-being. My secure safety net prevents me from recognizing the joint struggle. It’s difficult for me to relate because when most of your people slip, there is nothing below to catch them. 

India, in you I hoped to find a part of myself. I don’t think I will find that lost piece of my identity that I so long for, but instead, I am creating pieces to fit into a new puzzle. Why did I think living within your boundaries would hand me all the answers? It seems like I’m asking more questions than ever before.   

“True generosity lies in striving so that these hands – whether of individuals or entire peoples – need be extended less and less in supplication, so that more and more they become human hands which work, and working, transform the world. This lesson and this apprenticeship, however, must come from the oppressed themselves and from those who are truly solidary with them.”
 – Paolo Freire, Pedagogy of the Oppressed.

Am I solidary with your people, the unjustly oppressed that survive within you? I want to be. I will be. It’s harder than I thought.

Saturday, November 6, 2010

Escaping Muscular Humanitarianism

I thought I had begun my fellowship with no expectations, with a clear, open mind, but really, that was not the case. Once I got to my project sight, I realized I had been imagining myself doing Swades* style- muscular humanitarianism**, involving big muscles, big bucks, and big technological and political knowledge. Guess how many of those things I have? None. I did, however, bring a certain sense of determination and ambition, and some very silly subconscious daydreams.

I envisioned myself creating a study group for girls, bringing vocational and art classes to the village, bringing women into the public arena: ‘arre wah!’ I saw myself transforming a small town! I am the hero in my own Bollywood superhit! These subconscious reveries began to break down as I realized how village pace worked. No one would come to my meetings, people already knew about child marriage laws and just chose to ignore them, and even my host mother was a corrupt ex-president of the Gram Panchayat. Despite these deeply troubling issues, the biggest obstacle I felt I faced was housework. Housework, of all things. I hated those two words more than anything. Girls are often restricted in their activities because their mothers need them to do house work. Then I began to actually observe my surroundings, to see that in my own host family’s home, housework was central to every day life. From drinking chai to turning on the TV, the work that women do in the house is essential to every drop of water I drink and every morsel I consume. When I had to bring the water in myself, in a giant pot balanced on my hip, it began to sink in that housework was not just feather dusting the windowsill. It is about survival.

Survivalists! What an epiphany (I hope my sarcasm conveys itself on paper)! People work so they can eat, so they can drink, so they can raise children. I have never had to work this hard for a cup of water. A month and a half in, I still don’t do a fraction of the house work the average village woman does every day.

I wondered if technology could liberate women (i.e. washing machines, dishwashers), I wondered if education would allow women to be seen differently, if higher incomes would gain women the legitimacy they deserved, but deep inside, I know that the only way for women to break the shackles of patriarchy is a change in mentality, and that’s the most difficult change to catalyze. I was blaming housework for women’s limitations because it was easier than attempting to conceptualize and implement solutions for a less tangible culprit. Housework was not my enemy. Really, would a washing machine solve women’s problems? It certainly didn’t serve as a sustainable weapon for battling patriarchy elsewhere.

My sister asked me if my idealism is being ripped to shreds here. I said no, but I had to think about it first. The hesitation comes from the recognition that while I still cling to my idealism, I must modify it to fit with the needs of the community and not my own egotistical, impatient visions for change. Muscular humanitarianism loves the dam that generates clean water, loves the solar panels, and the paved roads, the quick, easy-to-recognize signs of development. But MH is silent in the face of social norms, patriarchy, and invisible oppression. I need to re-design my ideas of change and transform the Swades daydreams to fit with my capabilities, and most importantly, with Ukkali’s reality. As obvious as this conclusion may seem, it took me a while to shed these egotistical vision of change and opt for a subtler, and infinitely more powerful approach to development, in which the development of the self is necessary to occur.

*Swades: We, the people, is a Bollywood film starring Shah Rukh Khan in which an NRI returns to India and ends up building a small hydro-electric plant through his own personal funds and initiative in a small village.

**Note: Muscular humanitarianism is a term used by Political Scientist Anne Orford in her critique of humanitarian military intervention. I am utilizing the term in relation to international service work.

Saturday, July 17, 2010

I appreciate

the humility and comfort felt in worship that brings your head literally to the ground.
Beyond that, I don't know what I think about God(s).