Monday, December 21, 2009

Leaving one family for Another

Today is my last day in India.

One last day in proper bangles and sari,

I wake in the morning, an hour early

With anticipation, sadness and gratitude

For the many secrets She has rendered me.

The morning is humid and cool

As I sit in my place of peace

I am on the roof where I did yoga,

In the place where I stretch my mind

It is my last sunrise here

The growth swaying in a gentle breeze

The terra cotta roofs point to the sky

Where I will soon take flight,

She has shown me her sorrow

Her wonder, her pain, her differences

Yet similarities dance in my head

And I am called onward to change.

As the birds chirp they are now familiar

I listen and search for my song

To regale of what this place has taught me

Sure to never forget, rather, use.

For it is a new me that heads home

A different author singing more intensely

I cannot go back to that

Which held my breath in winter

This life should stay alive

It is my song now, and will

To express and careen anew

Relationships, hopes, fears, and dreams.

India, hark! I have heard your cry

And here forever more will answer

To that which deems much response

It is I who regale now and ever.

To return it is a hurt, a pain

That encourages this bird to go

Forgetting never the secrets told

On red and black soils of new and old.

Tuesday, December 8, 2009

Religious Practices in Life

According to Father Emmanuel, 90% of Indians who practice pooja rituals don’t know the rationale behind what they are doing and are simply imitating what they have seen their parents ad grandparents do. For example, one ritual is to break a coconut in front of the alter. Scholars like Father Emmanuel would know that the three parts of the coconut represent the three ways in which people are impure in committing sin and by breaking the fruit a person is breaking this part from within them and by drinking the milk they cleanse themselves of their sins. However, when the father asked people why they were doing this they simply say they saw it done by their parents. I would venture to say that these worshippers are not so different from many other people in this world and there are probably many reasons why this occurs.

Throughout history there are many reasons why people will perform rituals without knowing what exactly they are doing. One reason is that the text that prescribe practices are either written in a language the people are unable to read because it is ancient or the people themselves are illiterate. This could definitely be the case in India with a the Vedas being written in a language derived from Sanskrit and the many languages people speak in India, many of the people not having access to an education. Another reason is that the parents determine a persons’ religion at birth and it’s written on their birth certificate so a religion is usually passed down through generations and thereby people often practice in the same way as their predecessors practiced. Meanings of practices can be lost or subverted as they are passed down through generations and sometimes there may be a feeling of duty associated with the pooja rituals causing people to think that once the deed is performed they are in the clear.

I see this also happening within the Christian religion as well. When we went to the Bible expedition at the Catholic Church in Varanasi the scenes, lighting shows, movement of characters put on a display that would draw people in because of its attractiveness. The expedition told stories many children are told in Sunday school and did not give the reasons behind the stories and the symbolism is pushed to the background in favor of just teaching basic principles of a faith. Knowing the basics stories within a religion and not knowing their significance and to practicing rituals without knowing their significance are the same. What is the benefit of surface knowledge and practice without a deeper understanding? It may be possible for a person to be spiritually fulfilled by performing a ritual, but is that enough? For me it is not enough to practice a faith without knowing the theology and reasoning behind it yet I see to many Hindus openly expressing their faith in the streets and appearing quite jubilant and fulfilled. Due to my being raised to question and challenge my faith I am often discontented when I can’t figure out what’s going on but there seem to be many people who can be satisfied with practicing and knowing stories and that is enough for them. Maybe they have more faith then me or follow the logic of ‘ignorance is bliss’ and at times I envy them.

Comparative Theologies

After having visited numerous mosques, shrines, and Buddhist, Jain, and Hindu temples in India, along with a few churches I am struck by the various similarities and differences I am noticing within both the practices and reasoning. We have learned that in both Islam and Christianity there is an overarching belief in monotheism and the common perception of Buddhism and Hinduism is that they are pagan or polytheistic. However, this is not necessarily the case and I am finding more and more pieces of each religion and theology fit together yet differ in stark ways.

Buddhism is either more of an art of living and finding a sense of oneness with all that is around you or it is the actual worship of Buddha as a god. My perception is that the difference between these two types of Buddhism is that one seeks to attain liberation by looking within to find a sense of heaven; the other seeks to appease an actual idol by doing good works shown through compassion to achieve an external and more material heaven. Jainism, a branch off of Buddhism, seeks oneness and liberation by becoming completely detached from all that is physically of this world. Each practice mentioned here is concerned with removing suffering by detaching from all selfishness and relinquishing desires. This is done by strengthening the mind through meditation and living many lives that lead to one in which nirvana (salvation) is finally realized.

Hinduism is also concerned with achieving liberation, salvation, but in a different way. They believe that by living a good life based on good intentions that follow you all your lives and into death (Karma), the knowledge of God, and complete surrender to the will of God one can get to heaven. Although it seems as if there are many gods in Hinduism this is a misconception because God is found in nature and has been re-born many times in many forms of life. Thereby, all living things are worshipped as literal manifestations of God themselves (hence the term “holy cow”) and humans are no exception. Humans are simply the most advanced reincarnation of God and thereby it is within them to achieve salvation through the tree ways listed above. In my mind this is different from Buddhism because it teaches that good individual interactions with the world around someone can help them to reach the liberation from suffering where the Buddhists try to reach liberation through detachment and/or compassion that acknowledges oneness. Both philosophies are the same in that they same in that they acknowledge the power within human beings to achieve salvation and create their own fate.

Within Islam, the ability to attain salvation is somewhat limited yet not completely outside the realm of a person’s capacity. Like in Hinduism, there is an emphasis put on doing good deeds with one of its core beliefs being compulsory monetary charity and its emphasis on living a good life. Muslims believe that when a person commits a bad deed they need to ask for mercy from God and try to do better as a pre-requisite for attaining liberation and going to heaven. This theology is similar and different from the Christian view of attaining salvation. It is similar because Christians also believe that when a person sins they must ask for God’s mercy and forgiveness and thereby be liberated. It is different because Christian theology says that a person is not able to independently come to God and attain salvation, but rather they must surrender to God and allow God come to them with his grace, pardoning their sins with the blood of Jesus. In this way, attaining salvation is a gift which people are incapable of earning whereas, from what I have learned, all the other religions we have been learning about see themselves as having the power to liberated themselves. If people have the power to achieve their own liberation, creating our own fate, then what is the use of having a god? On the other hand, I believe in a loving god that allows people to have free will, so is there maybe a combination of achieving your destiny by choosing to surrender to God and life is all a test of just this?

The Land of Almost

In India, we have found it is of utmost importance that a person has the capacity to be flexible, patient, and have an extra measure of an ability to go with the flow. Whenever we go anywhere we never know if our ride will arrive up to a whole day earlier, an hour late, or if they won’t show up at all. Our program coordinators spend so much time arranging our transportation along with each place we visit, all our speakers, and everything in between yet anything is subject to change and/or cancellation at a moments’ notice. Also, I learned about some interesting facets of India from talking with a pastor and his wife, the Smiths (from MN!), who have lived here for almost 4 years now. They explained to me their struggles with simply establishing themselves in this country. They described the frustrating legal process of establishing the lease contract and then when you are almost ready to sign, the landlord will throw a curveball into the mix (like going back on one of the things he agreed to pay for) and expect you to just give in out of exasperation. Rev. Smith and his wife talked about stories where literally 9 plumbers and electricians are called in, each only fixing a part of the problem, to solve one simple issue and then all of them leaving the mess for the resident to clean. It seemed to the Smiths, based on many experiences in India, that only about every other person actually knows what he or she is doing in professions like these and very few will take pride in their work. Due to their many experiences here, they have dubbed India the land of almost. Why is this so? How will India ever be able to develop into a developed city that takes care of its citizens if its always ‘almost’ solving problems?

One observation of India that I’ve made is that everything everywhere seems to be under construction. This is seen in both the physical and ideological sense. Physically, literal buildings are decaying right next to new ones that are being manually built. The roads themselves have lots of bumps and potholes in some areas right next to or leading to newly paved freeways leading to more development. We’ve been in India for over 3 months now and there are building and road projects that were underway when we arrived and now seem to have remained the same. In a land that is supposed to be the fastest developing country in the world I wonder at the slow progress I see being made. Why is it that the physical labor is done manually in Bangalore even, the International Technology capital of the world?

In a book called Post-Hindu India the author, Kancha Ilaiah, claims that the caste system has put people in their places so rigidly and put such an emphasis on each person fulfilling only their role in society that many don’t aspire to do anything beyond their current capacity. To be born into a caste is to be originally destined to have a certain place in society and it is very taboo to try to change this. In a country where at least 85% of population is Hindu and at least 30% of those people being part of the laboring castes, it seems possible that the people doing their manual labor are just going about their duty hoping to just get through this life with the hope of being soon reincarnated as a Brahmin.

With the attitude of a person just getting through life because it’s their duty, it isn’t hard to imagine that people might lack an intrinsic motivation to take pride in their work. This may also be what has happened with the many workers the Smiths had to call to come fix issues with their house. It seems as if things get “almost” done, or just done enough for the time. It’s possible that this mentality, along with a very functioning but long democratic process, is responsible for many of the improperly addressed issues of this country like the slow, inefficient aid provided to Koppal during it’s flood crisis that has been occurring these past couple months. My question becomes, where do Hindu Indians derive their motivation and is this sufficient to cause noticeable change here? There have been many Indian speakers who have come in and talked in our classes and seem incredibly intrinsically motivated. From where do these speakers derive their drive to make a difference in the world and could this be the secret to encouraging others in ‘the land of almost’?

Tamarind and an Indian Meal

The many ways Indians use their fruits, vegetables, herbs, and spices simply astounds me. With the increasing privatization of healthcare and costs being at an expensive level for most poor people, it is important to value the knowledge of the tribal people and medicine women of villages with regard to plant use. This knowledge is centuries old and is actually rather effective. The fruit of the tamarind tree is just one of the many healing agents in India that is used for multiple purposes. The tree itself is leguminous and acts as a nitrogen fixer for the soil, promoting healthy growth of plants organically. The pod of the fruit is used to season rice, fish, chutneys, curries, sauces and many other foods in India. The fruit itself is also eaten as a treat when it is fresh, dehydrated, made into a paste, or a sugary pulp. Medicinally, the many parts of the tamarind tree are used for cooling fevers, aiding digestion, as a laxitive, to cool inflammation on the skin, are gargled to relieve sore throats, and can even help relieve leprosy and bring sensation back to those suffering from paralysis. The fruit is also used to dye material. Superstitions decree that it is taboo to fall asleep under a Tamarind tree because no other plants grow there and many Hindus will only eat tamarind fruit after the tree has been cross-pollinated with a mango tree.

An average Indian meal is also made up of many different products of the earth that have multiple nutritious benefits. Indian food is known for being spicy in comparison to the bland food eaten in the US. One good reason for it to be so spicy is because this allows for better digestion and helps your body to deal with the many parasites and other unwanted things that might be in the food and could harm your body. In an average meal here there will be a type of bread, a type of grain (usually rice or millet in my experience), curd, dal, and at least one other type of curry. In a cookbook I bought and glanced through, one type of chicken has at least 10 different ingredients and this tends to be the trend throughout the book. The food here his not only spicier that the food in the US, there are overall more flavors in each dish and all different aspects of the palate is considered. The dal and meat are usually savory, the chutney is sometimes sweet or bitter, curd is a little sour, and there is usually some type of sweet included. In the US usually the main dishes are savory and salty and the dessert is sweet, not including the bitter or sour aspects into account. It will be amazing to see how this has affected my taste buds with regard to food at home, I may start adding more spices to my food and incorporate more bitter and sour aspects into my meals.

Sunday, December 6, 2009

Country Mouse; City Mouse

As we travel through three of the largest cities in India (Bangalore, Delhi, and Hyderabad) there are a few things all have in common. In comparison to the Twin Cities, each place is more smelly, dirty, has everything for sale right on the street, always-visible beggars, and lots of people wherever you go. As a person who is from a small Minnesotan suburb of only 20,000 maximum people, it is hard for me to imagine a life in any of these cities much less living there for longer than a week. So, how is it that these people all come to live in the urban areas of the country? What brings them in and what keeps them there? Do they have many other options?

There are a couple explanations I can think of as to why people flock to the cities in India. The first reason is that they have been displaced and improperly re-settled, losing their stake in the land they once had and unable to sufficiently begin again if they are even given land. These people could be displaced by the numerous dam projects or any number of weather-related calamities that might afflict them and cause them to be incapable of supporting their family. These people then head to the cities with hopes of finding employment or another way to attain the money they need to live.

Another reason brings me back to the time we spent in Kerala with the farmers of an agricultural self-help group. These men expressed a concern that they work hard to win money so they can provide a better life for their children and send them to school. The education many offspring receive can lead them to the city toward higher education at universities and jobs in urban, developing sectors. If these people find employment they and their future generations will inhabit the cities as their forefathers continue to reside in the rural areas and then die off with fewer or no children to replace them at the farming business.

While spending time in a few of the more rural parts of India, I have noticed that a hierarchy is more evident to me than in the urban areas. One reason why people may stay in the city once they’ve come is that they may find a way to have more of an identity outside their caste in a place made up of more diverse people where they don’t have to follow village traditions. Having grown up in a smaller village some people may be so strictly put in their place in that community and this would be a chance for a person to escape that confining position and negative associations thereof. Another reason is that once a person experiences the conveniences of more western technology, why would they want to go back to the back breaking labor and insecurity of the farmer’s life? After a session of yoga, Dr. S. K. asked me why I gave up my comfy life in the US to learn about issues in India. He legitimately couldn’t fully understand giving up luxuries for a comparably more rustic lifestyle and it’s possible many people who migrate to the cities think along the same lines.

I am not sure if all the people in the city actually have the option to leave. First of all, it’s scary to move away from a lifestyle you know to one you don’t know and there is an overall great value put on family. To leave the physical location of one’s family is not something I’ve seen or heard much of as most people I talk with on the streets are born and raised in one area of this country. It’s also possible that people are unable to afford travelling to another part of India and with so many people and so much land grabbing going on it is unlikely that there will even be land for people who would seek to escape the hustle and bustle. I’ve seen many poor people in both rural and urban areas of India and am wondering if I have seen proportionately more in either. If a person has a good deal of money they might be able to escape the business of the cities, however, the general feeling I been getting is that the city is where people want to be. In the US the place to be, if you can afford it, is the suburbs yet in France it is the center districts of the cities themselves where the more affluent people live, so I am wondering which place is most desired for the Indian.

Hope for Farmers?

The basic concept of farming is that a person puts a seed in the ground, it grows, and what is grown gets harvested. What is produced is then stored, eaten, sold, and portions of it are re-planted. In the past week I have learned much more than this about farming and how it has been manipulated yet the faith it takes to invest your savings in a seed that is dependent on so many factors to come to fruition. As we spent time in Andhra Pradesh, the people have been negatively affected by the consumerist influences of cash crops and mono-cropping practices of large land owners surrounding them which are commonly associated with farming in the US. Yet now are empowered amazes me and has provided evidence that leads me toward thoughts of hope. The people here utilize the land with age old knowledge of multi-cropping technique that use every plant including what they actually plant themselves and the byproducts we would consider weeds. I wonder how many species we have lost in the US due to our development projects and agricultural practices.

I’ve noticed many parallels between the Native Americans of North America and many of the practices of the Adivasi, Dalit, and other backward people of India. The way we’ve seen the minorities of India use the land in a way that is prudent and resourceful. They used various plants for medicinal and nutritional purposes. This allows them to have their own medicine women to help their village with minor to moderate afflictions and the millet supplements their diets with nutritional whole grains. However, what happened in the case of the Native Americans when the railway corporations and pioneers encroached upon their land and that is exactly what is happening with the Adivasi, Dalit, and other backward people of India. The government and other powerful agents of development are gobbling up the arable, valuable land and the original people are being displaced or simple pushed off their land. The difference between the ways the Indian minority groups and the US original inhabitants is that the people in India know how to use the land in a way that is beneficial and the people on the reservations in the US have little else available to them for employment. I wonder if the people here will end up landless with increasing encroachment and eminent domain cases and closer resemble the Native Americans in years to come.

Orissa Hospital Experience

I was admitted to a hospital in Orissa yesterday in the late afternoon. I had been having intestinal issues that were excruciating 5 days previous and never quite recovered until yesterday when the cramps in my intestines intensified once again. I was unable to keep and medicine down and my body was trying to get rid of whatever was ailing me out of my mouth as well as my lower region. Since I could keep nothing down the doctors admitted me, severely dehydrated and in great abdominal pain, to the hospital with an IV and a shot in my upper hip.

I could only understand, at best, 15% of what was happening or being said, even with translators. The nurses would come in periodically, speak in Teligu with the representative from WIDA that was here with me, inject me with something, take some blood, and change the fluid bag that was hanging next to my bed. No one told me what was being put into my body unless I asked them specifically and with urgency in my voice; even then I was seldom told what I was enduring. The injections were very painful, making my hand and arm tingle in a way that reminded me of one time when I was injected with medicine I was allergic to and I stopped breathing for awhile.

I felt so confused most of the time, disoriented because of inconsistent sleeping during the day and interruptions from the 5-8 doctors and nurses that would periodically come in, ask me some questions in English I rarely understood, tell me to stick out my tongue and they checked my eyelids. This morning at 5:45 a nurse came in, turning on the room light and waking me up quite disgruntled. It was then that I refused a second injection in my upper hip because it was supposed to control vomiting, something I hadn’t done since before being admitted. In another hour a nurse who wanted to give me a very painful injection again woke me. I refused this because the doctor I spoke with before going to sleep that night told me I would be switched to taking only oral medications because I needed to finish my whole dosage of medication to fully get rid of the infection and ensure it wouldn’t come back. I have received no oral pills to complete my dosage even though I was supposed to have the next dose over 3 hours ago and I am afraid the infection is not cured because I am still having milder pains in my intestines. I am also concerned with how much I will have to pay for all these injections and medicines.

Pramila is a very kind 43 year old Indian woman who works at WIDA and has been staying with me while I am here. I’ve been able to talk with her about basic things like having 5 children in each of our families, both being evangelical Lutherans, and both having boyfriends. Although she is nice and helpful, I sometimes feel like she is trying to show me off as ‘the American’ to her boyfriend (who stayed in the room until at least 11:30 last night until I asked if they would be so kind as to shut off the lights so I could sleep and yet they continued to talk while I tried to sleep) and now another friend who has come to keep her company and stare at me ‘her American friend’ and I cannot blame her. I feel like I am on display to the doctors and nurses and for Pramila’s friends. However, I am grateful that Pramila is staying here with me and feel she should be able to have company that is better than me, who often does not feel like talking with her because it’s not easy to talk with her. She speaks adequate English but I am unsure as to how much of what I say gets across to her with regard to literal words and connotations.

This may be what it feels like for people to come into the US and be sick but not speak English. I realize that I am most likely treated better for being a white American in this country and I wonder what kinds of discrimination immigrants face in the US. I shudder to think at the confusion people must experience when they do not have any translator to help them understand what is going on and yet they are surrounded with and plugged up to such contraptions that mush be confusing compared to the very simple room in which I am currently sitting. I can see how such fear could be enough to prevent people from seeking any medical care at a hospital at all, even if they have insurance. If a person does not have insurance in the US, I can see how this would prevent people from seeking help for health concerns and this would make for an even more fearful experience in the hospital in a foreign country. My total bill for 24 hours in the hospital and for all the medical supplies and medicines used equals $40 instead of the thousands I would have been charged in the US. This is around the price of one simple co-pay for people who have insurance to see a normal doctor for only 30 minutes. Astonishing, no?

Monday, November 30, 2009

Would You?

To be a farmer in India takes so much more effort that I ever thought as someone who simply consumes the food produce. It is amazing how much these farmers have to have faith in so many unknown and unpredictable factors that have proven unreliable. If one factor of the extensive process fails the whole livelihood of a whole family and anyone in the community who depended on them for food and a repayment of lent money is now severely threatened. For example, if there is a drought and then an excess of rain washes away all that was sown in the land, the farmers are completely out of luck. Even provided the farmers do harvest what they’ve sown, they then proceed to try and get a fair price for what they do produce because they have debts to pay on their seed purchases and other supplies to make the crops grow. It seems that farming is pretty risky business, so I am find myself wondering why so many people (about 75% or Indians) do this potentially costly, backbreaking work when any reward at all is not guaranteed.
Much of the land in India is very arable and the warmer climate allows for more than the one growing season and thereby it would seem that farming in this country could be highly successful. India actually has a surplus of food that it is being exported to other countries even though many of its own citizens are starving and there are thousands of farmer suicides each year. Where did things go wrong? It seems that before colonizers came in people were much better able to provide for themselves without the competition of today’s Multinational Corporations. To date back to the research I did on the Green Revolution earlier this semester, because of the role India was pretty much forced to play in World War II this country was left deprived of many resources and that’s why cheap goods from subsidized farming done in the US came in and destroyed their markets. On top of that, the farmers were given seeds for crops ill-suited to their land and huge mega-projects in the form of dams either flooded the good land upstream or dried out the land downstream. Farming in India seems to have a completely different face today than it has ever had. In this country I see so many examples of extreme contrasts as the consequences of globalization and I think farming is just one of these. The farmers are trying to use farming techniques that are wise and have worked for centuries on their lands but outside factors are undercutting their practices in the markets and the whole practice is being negatively manipulated by the technologies of the Green Revolution and former president Nehru’s “modern temples,” the dams.
It’s clear that there are discouraging factors within the faming industry and it looks like these farmers a trapped. Who is doing the trapping? It would be really easy to just blame the large agri-businesses and government schemes for the problems, and granted they seem to be the most prominent instigators of the hardships placed on farmers, but we all need to look at ourselves too. We are the consumers and thereby benefit tremendously from the labour of people who we will never even meet. From my mom’s dad on back in that side of my family they were all farmers and worked hard in the fields and supporting their family and, although I have had only a few opportunities to do field work in my life, I can say that I am not willing to easily give up the lifestyle I have developed as a student to grow all my own food. I enjoy a little hard labour every once in awhile, but farming is more than exercise and, being honest, I am not willing to give up my hopes for a career that has absolutely nothing to do with agriculture and I think there are many other people who share my view. So what do we do? I know that buying locally, organically, and supporting businesses like Fair Trade are viable options, but I am a college student who needs to try and save at every corner. Is the cost of my education worth supporting US agricultural subsidies that aid in the oppression of farmers who already have to take the risk in simply planting their seeds?


“…human rights are not given freely, but come with a price: responsibility…to actively struggle to define, establish and protect them for all people, and not simply to complain or cry for justice when they have been violated.” (Human Rights Information Manual: Tools for Grassroots Action, x-xi)
Even though I personally value being seen as an individual, as an American, I have the responsibility to use this privilege to be the catalyst and factor that enforces justice. The question is if these human rights are actually freely given and who pays the price. It seems that there are so many people in India, and I’m sure in other countries as well, who make all kinds of sacrifices each day in an effort to have their own type of justice even if their rights are being violated. In this way people who are oppressed don’t just “cry for justice when [their human rights] have been violated,” these people also demonstrate the importance of justice for survival. In a world of such unequal distribution of wealth, the responsibility of enforcing justice lies in those who have experienced it in the sense that they have had their basic human rights respected and it is their turn to use their own rights to protect and defend others whose rights are violated. This is what it means to be a globally conscious citizen.
The question is: should human rights be given freely simply because a person is born in an affluent country and/or into a wealthy family by global standards? It seems, in the quotation above, that if rights are given freely people will inevitably “complain or cry” as if they do not have their rights at times. It looks like a symptom of having wealth, that usually equals having human rights and justice, is also having the power to complain and cry. In my experience, people do not simply whine to themselves, but rather they will make a commotion when they know someone will hear them. This is what having the power to complain and cry means. So, if people of affluent backgrounds have this power shouldn’t they use it to benefit others? This is where the responsibility bit comes into play.
Is responsibility a way to pay for justice and what about justice on a small scale? Whenever I buy souvenirs here I bargain for the best price because most vendors I encounter will hike up the prices as soon as they see the color of my skin and hear me speak. I am automatically labeled as someone with an excess of money that will be able to afford the higher prices. One may argue that the people here need to money I will spend more than I need it even if this means swindling me, but is this how I am to pay for the justice I have inherited by being born an American? Am I not in India to try and learn more about how to be a responsible global citizen and gain the tools to own up to the responsibility of my privilege and to defend the human rights of others that I myself enjoy? So who needs the money more, the merchant who has had their human rights limited or the person who would seek to expand that person’s human rights? Where is the justice?

Monday, November 9, 2009

Generally Speaking...

The musical group called the Ting Tings wrote a song called “That’s Not My Name” and this reminds me of the many interactions I have had with people in India. In this song ‘they’ call the singer many names including “her” and “darling” just like I feel that I am given names like “white” and “American” with just a glance or 2-sentence interaction. I feel like people put each other into categories all the time and that isn’t WHO that person is, just words that another person uses to describe them. In our group we’ve gotten in the habit of giving each other spirit objects, or animals and characters from books that describe the person’s role in the group based on the group’s general perception of them. I enjoy playing along within the group but find myself getting rather annoyed when outside people close me into a cultural box such as “white” or “American” because that may not be how I choose to identify myself even if these are true characteristics of me.

I think it is a common thing for people to put each other in boxes because in this way we feel we can understand each other, however, I feel this actually hinders the understanding process. By grouping people into over-arching cultural boxes I think we allow for more cultural bias to creep into our view of a person and if that is the only person of that group we have met that affects our view of others who may fall under the same cultural category. I sometimes resent being called an American, even though I am, because I do not agree or have taken part in all the negative connotations that come with that stereotype. It has been said that there is a grain of truth in each stereotype, but I think that because Americans are more individualistic society it seems there is a greater range of what the name “American” can mean and there are many I would wish to never be associated with. I wonder if this is because of my view of this group name that makes me resent it at times. This is not to say that the people who would generalize me as “American” necessarily associate the same things with that name as I do as many Indians who have asked me where I am from have claimed that they themselves have never been out of the city in which I have met them.

From my understanding, the average “Indian” is Hindu and speaks Hindi right? Every “American” is Christian and speaks English right? I spoke with an Indian woman on the train ride from Visakhapatnam to Hyderabad and she found it very hard to believe that there were people who are not Christians and do not speak English in America. I think it is stereotypes and putting each other in figurative boxes that builds barriers between us and hinders cultural understanding and openness. I think the reason I most resent being called an “American” is because with this initial understanding of me I then feel I need to disprove certain things about myself that come with a simple label that is not based on my personal actions; I am guilty until proven innocent and all this is at the mercy of the person perceiving my actions to mean something according to their own culture. I cannot deny that I too find myself judging actions of others based on standards of normal behavior in my own culture even though it is this judgment that I resent from those who look at me. The question is, can this be helped?

I think with training we can teach ourselves to be culturally sensitive, but how do we then notice the uniqueness of others within their own cultures if we tell ourselves that anything we don’t understand can be dismissed as a cultural difference between the American and Indian, or other, cultures? This, therein, is the difficulty in studying the behavior of people and people within unknown cultures. Cultures, it seems, are not to be generalized even though it is necessary to begin somewhere when it comes trying to gain an understanding of people in a culture. So, how do we find a place to begin our studies other than the generalizations? I feel as if it is important to first identify that which is a generalized assumption and dispel or prove it with direct observations and our best attempts and open-mindedness. However, can we really dispel stereotypes through observation if we begin with our own inherent cultural biases and lenses that have been based in our individual cultures within our cultures? How many levels of interpretation do we need to peel back before we come to a neutral zone then dig into and try to peel back the layers of another culture? How much time does it take until we can truly attain cultural empathy in contrast to the sympathy with which we begin? I feel it may be these unanswered questions that are commonly unrecognized by those who are unsuccessful in cultural interactions and refuse to work at understanding those different from them in a global context. From my experience, this process is not easy and it’s never finished.


I feel it is really important for the world to understand that throwing money and problem only creates more dependence. For example, if an impoverished nation needs money from the World Bank or the International Monetary Fund (IMF) they take out a loan which they must pay back and these organizations also get some say in how this money is spent when the choose if the will grant the request for a loan. So, if the money is lent the nation uses that money for the time being and has to make payments over the next period of time following the implementation of the loan. What happens, as it so often does, if the nation has a natural disaster, crops fail, and they are in need of more money that even the first loan granted them? They end up needing more and more money to pay off debt that they simply cannot pay off even if the money is being used efficiently. The same thing happens when governments and organizations throw money AT people instead of investing IN people through empowering them.

By investing IN people, tools of change and positive forms of development are created and the people do not have a chance to become so dependent upon the money being thrown AT them. It seems to me that by investing in the empowerment of people fully dispels the notion that people need a type of colonial power to guide them toward continuous community improvement. It seems that self-sustained community development is driven on the empowerment of people through providing them with ideas for development, information about how to create positive change, making the community members take charge in the whole process, and when the catalyst steps back to act in the role of advisor instead of simply giving the people money and/or doing the job for them. One of the sayings WIDA bases its efforts on is that this NGO “builds people, not buildings” according to Sassi. To me, this seems like the most effective form of development I have come across because it allows groups of people to develop in the ways they want to develop and gives them the autonomy to do this. If communities are allowed to develop in the ways they deem most fit for them this can also give them the political power they need to fight for their rights with regard to the government taking away their land, water, and forests and allow them to maintain their sense of identity as it has been traditionally and/or as what it is becoming.

Why Women.

I’ve been frustrated and ranted about the oppression of women before in my journals, however, it is possibly more important to focus on the wonderful things that places like RASTA and WIDA are doing to empower women as tools for self-sustaining community development projects. After interviewing Omana, of RASTA, she told me about the importance of women being a part of self help groups (SHGs) because they are more marginalized and thereby possess an empathetic link to the other community members who are oppressed and/or impoverished. Another reason why it is important to target women as tools for social change, according to Sassi of WIDA, is because they are the ones who most often will actually listen to the NGO members who try to help the communities. Sassi said that the men seem to be raised to have a much more close-minded way of thinking that the deference often taught to girls has allowed them to be more open-minded as women who will listen to creative solutions to community problems.

There are many ways to empower women to stand up and be the voice of positive change in their communities. Many people in Orissa are landless and this is not including the women because they have so become the second sex in comparison to men. WIDA has been working with the women to organize them and, through many unification efforts, has been able to ensure that many women are now able to inherit land where they were previously disallowed this familial right. Also, unlike what we saw in the Wayanod region of Kerala, many women have been able to demand the same wages as men for the same jobs done and more women are claiming the 100 days of work the government guarantees its citizens. By gaining the confidence that organizations like WIDA will support women, these people are gaining more equal treatment along with the power to stand up for themselves, speak their minds, have more financial autonomy, and thereby women are gaining more of an equal footing with men with regard to respect and leadership opportunities. By empowering people who can not only sympathize with, but empathize with the oppressed and/or impoverished people of a community NGOs like RASTA and WIDA seem to be empower the people to, as Gandhi Ji once said, “Be the change [they] want to see in this world” and hopefully pass this on to their children as the communities get used to the idea of empowered women as a positive way for their community to develop and be self-sustaining.

Friday, October 30, 2009

Fall Break Vacation!!!

This last week myself and 5 other people from my group went on our fall break of traveling fun. We flew up to New Delhi from Bangalore and were supposed to meet Mike at the New Delhi railway station to take a train to Haridwar. Well...we couldn't find Mike anywhere and our train was leaving so 4 people took the train and one person, Katie, stayed with me at the station so we could find my man. We finally found him at the other information center of this huge station and were able to find a really late train that night to our destination...confession time: I actually ate McDonalds food in India. I am surprised at how comforting places like caf├ęs, Pizza Hut, and McDonalds are when you haven't had really ANY food you are used to in 2 I did it. we got off the train and made it to Rishikesh, a town located in the foothills of the Himalayas, and went whitewater rafting on the Ganges River! It was fantastic!!! Then we travelled way up into the mountains to a town called Mussoorie where we went hiking all around and even saw snow on distant peaks! Unfortunately, the last couple of days Mike and I had major stomach problems and the whole time I was really craving a bagel sandwich...but the whole trip was really great and I got to spend some time relaxing.

Our Middle Class Role in Our World

This thought process was further encouraged when we talked about food sovereignty later in the week. We spent some time brainstorming the things that we as future policy makers, scientists, social workers, teachers, and global citizens can do to improve the food situation and fair trade that protects the right to food people ought to have. The many ideas we had were all productive and interactive solutions, however, they require sacrifices of people like us who are from the middle and upper classes. Due to the slighter lifestyle change that would take place for the people from the middle class, as examples to the people of the higher class, it seems like it should be easier for us to change the world a little at a time but many of us seem to play the blame game, just like the students we visited at St. Charles school. How many of us will actually make the sacrifices it takes to live a sustainable, green lifestyle?

It’s hard for me, as a college student, and many others like me to actually bite the bullet and buy things at a rate that fully represents their production value. I have chosen to go to a liberal arts school that is expensive and causes me to always be on the lookout for deals and cheap items like food and clothes from Walmart or Kohls. However, by buying from these places that exploit people and drive up the amount or carbon and other greenhouse gasses that harm people with regard to their water supplies and thereby food self-sufficiency. It would be much more environmentally and economically conscious if I bought from a local market or by making my own clothes, but I live in a state that cannot grow food all year round and I don’t have the resources or time to make my own clothes. How do I, and the people like me, reconcile these differences? I feel that this may be the attitude of many other middle class members of the US and of many people in the same class in India as is displayed in the expressions of the school girls we talked with. The task of sacrificing only a little may seem too overwhelming and this discourages people form taking any action at all. Also, people get all excited and, like with dieting, do super well for a week or two and then go back to their old ways, sometimes worse than they were before.

To combat this discouragement, I think it is important to start off remembering a few things: take full responsibility for your actions, everything in moderation, and change takes time. The first thing I see as a hindrance to people actually taking measures to be socially conscious is that they either do not know what their power is as a consumer or have a self-defeatist attitude, thinking their decisions can’t really make any change. However, I think it is important to realize that if one person is blatant about their consumer choices other people will take notice and start thinking about making a change themselves. It does take more work sometimes to research and find places to buy more ethical goods, however, I think one needs to be honest with themselves about valuing others with their purchases and not just about getting the lowest price because it seems to be the best price with regard to their personal budget.

It is also important to make small changes at a time because, from what I’ve read of dieting, if people start all extreme that is how they often end their efforts. Making one smaller change at a time and adding onto it often creates more than just a change, but a habit and way of thinking that can develop into a lifestyle. It is a different mindset and lifestyle that people should be working toward. From what I have seen and read, it seems that accepting responsibility for helping the world in every way you can by not blaming the problems on everyone else, but actually trying to change yourself and thereby others a little at a time will help people like me and other middle to upper class members to be the positive change we need to be. It is not just the fault of the Multinational Corporations or the governments of poor countries that allow their people to be exploited and made and kept poor, it is also our fault because we choose to shift the blame and not do what we can in the places we inhabit.

Middle Class Consciousness

A group of us visited St. Charles all girls private school. We went into a classroom of about forty 10th standard students who challenged us to re-think our lifestyles in the US and look at India in different ways. Through an exchange of questions and answers we ascertained three basic things these young women desired. They wanted to be better represented in their government, to become more western, and go on to become middle class doctors or have other professions that would lead them to live as middle class people like their parents and quite possibly their parents’ parents.

There is an age limit as to how old a person can be to act as a government official so these women felt as if their interests were not being adequately represented. One reason they really wanted to be represented is because they unanimously wanted to become more developed and one person even went so far as to say that she wanted more capitalism. The views of the up-and-coming middle class youth, as displayed in the film “Bangalamerica,” seemed to be pretty well articulated in this class of the young women in this classroom. They desire the globalization that is occurring and are even eating it up in as many portions as they can buy. Being middle class consumers, they have the means with which to literally buy western products, telling the markets what they want and thereby having more power than they realize to bring about more development. There are ordinances, like the one in Bangalore that has made dancing in establishments illegal, which are restricting advancements in some areas of development but there are always ways of casting your vote in the market by choosing what you consume.

The school these young women attend is a school that is private and only afforded by middle or higher class people, thereby excluding poor people who would seek the higher education for which this school prepares its students. The poor are not allowed to come and there are no scholarships available so this group is completely excluded from this higher education and preparatory classes for university studies. In response to the question about the problem of poverty in India the young women said that if only the rich people would give their money to the poor and the poor would accept the new agricultural farming techniques the gap between the rich and poor would improve significantly. Like many Americans who are middle class, these girl seem to blame the extreme ends of the class structure while possibly forgetting their own responsibilities. When asked what they wanted to be when they grew up many said they wanted to be doctors because that was a good career. In contrast, the lower class girls at the Bandhavi school here at Visthar said they wanted to be doctors to help people who cannot otherwise get healthcare.

I’m not sure that the women of this one St. Charles classroom represent their class in any necessarily accurate way, but their answers do show that there are people of the middle class who may blame others while ignoring their own important role as a consumer and socially conscious individual. In the US, it is easy to consider yourself a middle class citizen and ignore the insights this position gives a person. Being in the middle of the extreme rich and poor people of one’s country allows a person to see both sides of the spectrum and a clearer way than having the poor attempt to fully understand what the rich need to do to help them and vice versa with the rich people wanting the poor to essentially help themselves. Often, however certainly with exceptions, I see fellow middle class citizens in the US striving to become richer than they are, seeking to understand how to themselves get ahead of their competition and have more. Instead, I would urge middle class individuals to see their positions as a place from which they are able to understand the importance of having what they need but not striving for the excess that might blind them to the unfortunate poverty around them. As someone in the middle of class extremes, I see myself and every other person on this trip as having the resources with which to gain a valued education and yet be able to empathize at times with people who do not have the occasional excesses we enjoy. We have the ability to use our privilege to further our understanding of poverty and then address it in productive and hopefully lasting ways.

Sunday, October 11, 2009

Educated Alternatives

The lifestyles of the Adivasi people do not fit into the mainstream cookie cutter scheme that sets up public schools in India. The style of teaching found in the schools funded by the government and introduced by British colonizers is in the form of lecture and listen to how things are in the world with little discrepancy discussed. A member of an Adivasi tribe generally lives a less restricted lifestyle that does not force them to sit in a desk for 4 hours and take notes. Rather, their traditional classroom is in nature interacting with close community members and with the land along with taking the liberty to visit neighboring villages a celebrating cultural holidays which disallows school attendance. The difference of upbringing and customs plus the fact that the Adivasi people are outside the caste system causes the tribal youth in many schools to be made fun of in public schools and this very often leads kids to fall behind, get discouraged, and drop out of school.

One way these Adivasi youth are still able to learn is by going to an alternative school like Kanavu. Kanavu is lead by young adults from the surrounding tribal communities who have themselves gone to the school. The youth learn by taking care of the school and practicing various types of traditional music, dances, and crafts that encourage their creativity and aptitude to learn. This school does not grant an official certificate to its students, however many of the people who have gone to this school emerge, and others like it, as community wide leaders. It is refreshing to me to see the recognition of talents outside of strict math and science and sequential thinking. This school, although run and attended by people who are supposedly backward, as the name Adivasi suggests, seem to be actually quite modern in their non-traditional thoughts as is evident in the success of many of their students.

In Minneapolis, Minnesota there are an increasing number of schools geared toward the arts in more recent times. I think what we are witnessing is a more modern way of thinking that values alternative education. It is interesting to think that most often the alternative learning schools in Minneapolis are more for the rich where the people who go to this school are those who are poor. The relationship between them is the common recognition that people do not fit into boxes and to encourage art education is to encourage a vast array of new ideas that may otherwise not be explored. I think it is possible that globalization has positively affected the tribal people by encouraging a group of them to recognize who they are and how they learn as a way of affirming their identity in their minds and their communities through the success of alternative education.

Health by Globalization

There are a few different things going on with healthcare in the Wayanod region. The Adivasi people have forever used the herbal knowledge passed down through generations of people as their form of medicine. However, with the introduction of pesticides, the invasion of farms around them, and the displacement they experience their ways of healing ailments have changed. The plants they once used are either diminished or have disappeared along with the knowledge of how to use certain plants. Also, with the introduction of previously unknown chemicals unfamiliar diseases have spread to the indigenous people and they are often unable to combat them without modern medicinal practices and drugs. These people have been forcibly introduced to harmful chemicals and a style of farming that lowers and pollutes their water supply, making them dependent upon more modern practices.

When we met with a doctor of modern medicine at a hospital in a nearby town, he expressed a strong opinion that is supposedly common of other doctors of his stature. He completely devalued the herbal and non-western ways of curing and preventing ailments, saying they were “completely useless.” However, it seems to me that the doctor has forgotten that many drugs we use to treat illnesses and diseases have come from the herbal knowledge of how plants react with our bodies even though they have been chemically enhanced. I doubt we would need so many strong drugs if we hadn’t been using and exposing ourselves to such harmful chemicals as are found in pesticides and fertilizers to produce the best looking crops and profits. It seems as if globalization is a down hill spiral that, once introduced, must continue to be introduced because of the interconnectedness of the environment with the people and our symbiotic relationship with our surroundings. Just like the chemicals introduced can produce bugs that are more resistant and so harsher chemicals are needed, the more globalization that is introduced the more of it is needed to combat the effects of the original dosage.

Agricultural Globalization

Today met with farmers who are members of an agriculture community development organization. As a part of this CDO, each person tills their own few acres for personal profit and also do communal work like cultivating seeds in a greenhouse to earn extra funds which are distributed equally between them. This is beneficial because it increases the selling power of these people as they do not hire outside workers and they watch out for each other when it comes to selling at the market. Recently, this group has profited from their communal decision to farm organically and they are able to sell their products for a good price because, even if the food does not look as good as food grown with pesticides, their products is better. Organic farming has been very successful not only for quality of product but also for the environment because it introduces fewer toxins into the environment and to people while it helps the water supply of the area.

Due to globalizations harmful ideas are being introduced in the farming communities and have caused people like these farmers to need groups like this CDO. Due to advancement, the government and companies have taken land from people to develop into cities, displaced others with dams, and combined land to create mega farms. The farmers we talked with spoke of many frustrations with globalization. They feel taken advantage of because they are primarily poor and uneducated; unable to find channels to fight their oppression. Also, these men felt as it they, as Indians, will never be able to catch up with the rest of the world technologically because they will reach a certain point and the rest of the world will have already moved on from there. Another effect of globalization is that the children of these farmers are going to school and into fields that are often outside the agricultural scene, not desiring to continue farming. If the farmers are not replaced when they are gone, where will the food come from?

With the introduction of globalization comes the question of ethics. One solution to the farmers not being replaced by their offspring is to combine land into fewer, larger farms that use technological advances to produce food. This is, however, not necessarily a feasible answer because it lowers the water tables, causes erosion, and often entails introducing more harmful chemicals into the environment. The health and well being of these people will be adversely affected if mega farms take over the agriculture scene. Another harmful effect is the loss of heritage because many of these people have descended from a long line of farmers in their families and they, like the Adivasis, may feel very connected to the land they and their predecessors have tilled.

Who are the Adivasi people?

Mr. Bijoy, an activist for the Adivasi (indigenous) people, came to talk with us. He has been spending the last many years of his life working with the Adivasi people of India. These people are tied to their land and do not view it as something they can own but rather, they belong to the land. The Adivasis are outside of the Hindu caste system and are often picked on by having land taken away from them and denying them rights granted other citizens. There is also a definite struggle for the tribal people to maintain their culture yet avoid being taken advantage of by the government and politicians because of their lack of education and poverty.

Their identity is so connected to the land that they are suffering in many ways. How can one retain their cultural and tribal identity, values, and history if the land and resources connected are taken from them? Adivasis are not required to follow and Indian laws but they are subject to the greed of the government and its ability to displace people whenever and however it chooses. In response, many tribal people are rising up and trying to take back their land through means such as land protests in which they camp out on the land that used to be theirs until they are forcibly removed or granted what they are fighting for. There have been attempts by the government of India to re-settle many of these people, however the land given them is often not the land they had previously belonged to and cultural identity cannot be carelessly replaced. Most land is India is arable, however the amount of land taken away from Adivasi people is significantly greater than what is re-allotted to them. Their resettlements are not like the reservations in the US because many of these tribal people have been moved to land they can till and the people on reservations have been given the rejected, barren land and the residents must obey federal laws.

Saturday, October 10, 2009

Women Are, Women Have

Mercy, one of the many wise and knowledgeable people at Visthar, really opened my eyes to the face of women in India and all over the world, including the US. First and foremost, women face so many struggles that men don’t have to face because of the inherent belief that men are superior in stature and strength. Men are biologically built to have more large muscles to help them to manual labor and hunt for food where women are built to have finer motor skills for doing more menial work and a higher percentage of body fat for continuing the human race. This breeds the stereotypes that men are supposed to be the breadwinners and the women’s place is in the home.

So, who works the hardest? Most women believe that men work way harder than they do. However, of all the work done in this world, women do over 60% and only get paid 10% of the world wide wages. Many more women are being encouraged to work outside of the home, yet still come home to take care of all the domestic household and child-rearing responsibilities. In India, and I suspect in many other places in the world, it is considered pretty good to have a husband who is willing to occasionally “help” in the kitchen or with other household chores.

It is technically illegal to pay women less wages, however in India and the US companies still pay women only 40% maximum of what their male counterparts make for doing the same work. The reasons for this are misconceptions that tell us that women work slower and do less work, however, when I went to a wig factory earlier this semester we witnessed the men going to their second hour long tea break of that day. These men would still work at lest 3 fewer hours than the women, getting paid significantly more and working in much cooler and cleaner spaces.

If the wage disparity isn’t enough to frustrate a person, their caste, class, ability to provide sons, and the status of their husbands also devalue a women. With so many factors connected it is hard to look at solutions for these problems without addressing everything. Another part of what Mercy talked with us about is how every issue us interconnected and trapping. Female babies are undesired because they are seen as a burden. The family pays a “handsome” fee as a dowry to the husband they decide their girl child will marry as if paying the man’s family to take on their burden. The woman is expected to be utterly submissive, produce male babies, take care of all household affairs and have dinner on the table in a timely fashion. If there is not food, she must find a way to have food there and will often go hungry because the women eat after any guests, male figures(including sons) assuming there is food(which they have made) left.

I caution all US citizens against the belief that they have equal rights because the wage disparity is ridiculous in our country, although it is illegal, and remember how big of a deal this last election was because there were finally women as major contenders? People actually asked questions about if America was ready for a female president! One problem is the stereotype that men who are ambitious are seen as go-getters where driven women are often seen as bitches. It would be nice to think of the US as a gender equal environment where people have all the same opportunities and rewards, however this is a fallacy we have yet to achieve in reality. Neither India or the US is better, or worse, they both have issues with properly valuing women.

Sunday, September 27, 2009

Kolar Gold Field without Gold

We went to the Kolar Gold Field(KGF) district and town. The story is that there was gold found deep in the earth back when the British were still occupying and in control of India. The British came in and built a gold mine and the associated sifting and processing shafts, employing, unregulated, mostly Dalit people and creating the booming town known as KGF. The men employed were so greatly exploited and poorly paid that the men would not have enough money to pay for their daughters to get married and would literally cut off one of their fingers on their left hand in exchange for promised compensation(which they often didn't actually receive). Despite the poverty that existed there were still many people who were employed and could still support their families in a meager way. Mining work is very dangerous because of all the silt and sand that gets into the lungs of the workers, creating holes in this vital organ, and then the doctors prescribed that they drink this fruit drink that quickly ferments and only eases their pain so they could drunkenly continue their labor. If a miner didn't die of holes in their lungs or alchohalism they would die in the explosions that would blast the rock to discover the gold. Another byproduct of the mining was the waste that was discarded: cyanide is used to separate the gold from the rock and then the is pumped back into the water supply as the rock was spread over the previously arable land and leaving it useless.
When the gold became scarce the British left these people with health issues, empty promises of compensation, unemployed men, and villages of poor widows with little to no power or livelihood.
We went to a village where there were many widows who say a song and told us of their attempts to bring about political change and their struggles to earn money to support their families in a once boom town that is now nearly a ghost town. Many of the widows in KGF were partitioned to a village that was marked as "unfit" for those men(and their families) who were no longer able to work because of the damage mining had done to their bodies. These people were seen as unfit among the untouchables, the lowest among the low of the people in this region. One woman had the audacity to ask us if we would help them to start a small industry in their town. It seems to me that these women knew what they needed but simply lacked the influence and financial resources to actually reach their goals and help themselves.
Without industries, or even ration cards and water sources for the "unfit" people, it looks as if the British came in, conquered, exploited, weakened, then left these people destitute. This is a prime visual example of what unregulated exploitation looks like and it makes me want to look further into exploitations of the oil, coal, and diamond industries and their effects on people now and futuristically. Also, I question how much longer these industries will be around until they meet a hideous end and what other types of current boom towns will be looked back at in the next 50-100 years. How much longer will mining be feasible and/or possible in the future and how many years have these industries last? Is there a way for these industries to invest in futuristic planning for future generations who will not be employed by the mine because the mine will have dried up?
After talking with the destitute widows we went to a community college of young women who were training and studying 1 year to become nurse assistants, teachers, sociologists, and many other respected professions. These women described to me their stories about how the mine closing had greatly affected their families and their previously discouraged lives. However, after having come to the community college the women told me of the great difference in their lives as learned in the classroom and by performing on stage. Now they could get up in front of people and be confident in their skills and all they have to offer the world. Such hope really helped to inspire me that there is hope for even communities such as KGF and made the whole day come together. I am further questioning the theory that education the answer to problems of this world. Perhaps it is not the guru style of teaching, which encourages simply one person lecturing and others being told what is truth, but experiential learning is the answer to at least quite a few seemingly hopeless problems like the situation in KGF.

LGBT discussions

Today we had Shubha Chacko and 3 members of the LGBT community come into our class and teach us about sexuality and sexual identity along with sharing their stories of struggle with us. Shubha is a woman who works with 2 organizations called Sangama and Aneka to empower, advocate for, and otherwise help members of the LGBT community in India. Her work is important because homosexuality is so stigmatized in this country that often they fall victim to sexual harassment, family disownment and physical abuse from their families, and live in unspeakable poverty because there are only 2 jobs available to them: Sex work or begging.
Shubha taught us about how sexuality in India is so linked to survival, poverty, political struggle, discrimination, and is context specific(many homosexual people will not receive ration cards and have such a high fear of being found out because of the above mentioned stigmatization). One of the reasons homosexuality is so taboo is because it was actually made illegal by the British to practice any other type of sexual action other than the most traditional sense by the 377 Act. No longer is homosexuality illegal according to Indian law, but it is still greatly frowned upon. It is her opinion that sexuality is not something that fits in a box just as people are all different and cannot be fit into a box.
The people from the LGBT community that came in to speak with us were one man who identifies as gay, a born man who identifies and dresses completely like a woman, and a born man who completely identifies as a man, marrying a woman even though this is not legal in India. Each person shared their personal stories of struggle and hardships in a world where they are being told to act in ways that are contrary to their inner identifications and what is the normal way for them to act. Common occurrences in their stories include: times when people sought to control them sexually and raped them, lack of familial acceptance and being made to wear clothes and have hair commonly associated with their biological sex, thoughts of suicide and attempts at this, sex work and begging, false accusations of various crimes by police officers, and yet hope found in the empowerment and support provided by Sangama and Aneka in their work to combat the after effects of Act 377. The irony in this situation is that the vast majority (at least 80%) of the people here are Hindu and there are books within this religion dictating sexually promiscuous actions that include acts between people of the same sex and othere types of sex and pleasure that my be achieved outside the most traditional sense of sexual practice.
Homosexuality is also something people are uncomfortable with as it is practiced in the US. Harassment and violence against people who identify as LGBT happens and in this past election we saw each presidential candidate asked questions about allowing gay marriage to occur. It has been said by our professor that having many words for something in a language says something about that culture and this is something that may hold true for both the Indian and US cultures. How many words can you think of in either slang or political correctness that insinuate sexuality in any form? In just a few seconds I can think of 12 words in English right off the cuff, which I will not list here because I'd risk offending people. From my perception of the presentation we heard on Wednesday, there are just as many words in the many languages spoken in India. It is my opinion, based of the given evidence of the LGBT presentation and my knowledge of the groups and movements in the US that homosexuality is a large, obscure, and uncomfortable issue in both countries.

Saturday, September 26, 2009


On Monday, September 21st, we celebrated Eid. This holiday is one of the two most important for the Muslim community across the world because it celebrates the end of Ramazan. Throughout Ramazan(this month according to the lunar calendar) Muslims fast, abstaining from all food and drink during the light hours of the day. On the day of Eid the men from our group got up and went to the prayer time with somewhere between 25,000 and 50,000 other men. Meanwhile, the rest of us women waited for them and then met at Sham’s sister’s home to have a feast in celebration of the day.

I was thankful for the relaxing morning, it’s always great to have a holiday, but I would have very much liked to go to do prayers with the men. I learned that in India women simply do not go to do prayers in public spaces. In Islam, the women are taught to dress modestly and are not allowed to go and do prayers with the men so as not to distract them. I fully respect these teachings and practices, however I don’t understand why only men can go out at pay homage their god together. In talking with Hermine, Sham’s niece, about Islam and Eid, I learned that the women simply stay home, not often getting together as the men do, but still be required to pray in the same way. Hermine gave no specific reason as to why this is except to say that it just is this way.

It seems unfair that women are seen as a distraction from holiness. When the men go to pray, it is very uniting and there is a sense of empowerment in this type of simultaneous worship that the women do not receive. Also, the men receive teaching from a leader and thereby knowledge about how to act and interact in the people in this world of both men and women. As an American woman who is committed to her faith, I would feel deprived and excluded were this practice of exclusion to be lorded of me. As an Indian woman committed to her faith, Hermine expressed an acceptance of the way her sect of Muslim society functions and did not question it or show any signs of defiance. This causes me to remember the lower status of women in the Indian society. I know that there are many mosques in the US and in Egypt that allow and encourage Muslim women to attend the prayer time by allowing for separation of men and women during prayers so as to maintain the ideal of modesty for every person. Although sometimes it is important to accept social rules in order to maintain a sense of harmony, but I wonder: at what cost do you accept things as the way they are and when does it become necessary to stand up for your right to equal treatment? Is subservience more helpful than descent because it is simply more convenient?

The other thing that really struck me about today was the wonderful Indian hospitality we experienced from Sham's family. All 16 of us students, our professor, Lindsay, and various staff members of the Visthar staff were welcomed with open arms into Assma's home in addition to her own extended family members. We were given seats in a large family room and encouraged to go back to the food table for 2nd, 3rd, and even 4th helpings of the amazing food. With my family, we are allowed to bring a guest if we notify the host well in advance so that enough food may be prepared and a family atmosphere can be created and maintained, but I wonder what would happen if I brought 16 guests, a professor, and other close friends to a Peterson family gathering. I envision a BIT of panic in the eyes of the host, to put it lightly. It seems as if the sense of community is so strong in this family that we, as guests, are seen automatically as part of the family. That is definitely how I felt as I was greeted by and bid farewell with hugs, handshakes, and air kisses on each cheek.

Monday, September 21, 2009

Sari shopping

Ever since I arrived in India I have been greeted by the amazing colors and designs decorating each person, and more specifically the women. In the US, people often wear drab colors like shades of gray, tan, white, and black, maybe because they are more chic and professional. These colors exist in the garb here but there are so many more colors exploited and encouraged in the different pieces of clothing people wear. At first all clothing seemed to be a mesh of whirling colors that, over time have developed into kurtahs, salwar kamees, tight or large pants, dupitas, and the elegant saris. They all seemed so beautifully unique and yet strangely all the same.

Lindsay, the intern here at Visthar, helped to open my eyes to the world of saris today. We first went to a sari shop that looked similar to many other shops I had seen on Commercial Street and along other shopping center streets. I was told these were lower end, but was so amazed and overwhelmed at all the sari patterns and colors and sparkles that choosing just one seemed impossible. About an hour later I was lead to a special silk sari establishment where I needed to take off my shoes and walk in to sit down with cushions underneath and behind me. Instead of being overwhelmed by the things I saw in the earlier shop I began to see the quality of the material and the solidarity of an elegant, quality sari.

I left the second shop with new eyes. Instead of looking at clothing as simply decorative and ornamental I began to see the intricacies of how the sari defines who and what a person is in India. The material that looks as if someone just sewed something onto it or if the pattern is almost gaudy was not an expensive sari and the ones that are more plain but more elegant are worn by those who can afford such extravagance. Recognizing this, I came to the realization that what someone wears can also externally and socially define that person. It made me foolishly self-conscious of the cheap but beautiful kurtah I was wearing when I had previously been so enamored with its sparkly beauty. Is there a sub-culture defined by fashion in India?

The slums we walked through at the beginning of the journey here seemed so full of beautiful colors and the people did not seem poorly clothed as I was still so overwhelmed with the swirling hues. Would I have looked at these people differently if I really knew the cost of their clothing? I am disgusted with myself for thinking such materialistic thoughts and having developed a sense of pride having been able to afford a real silk sari that clearly declares to the world that I am wealthy, beyond the color of my skin and place of origin. What percentage of people in India can afford a real silk sari? How much of the silk in India is exported to wealthy people all over the world? How will the majority of India view me as I wear the cheaper sari or the silk sari? Will they see me as a white wannabe trying to be one of them or someone who is prominently displaying my wealth on my back? I am not sure how much what I wear will define me and am anxious to contrast reactions when I wear either sari.