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.

Field study in Koppal district

This last week I was out on my first field assignment, sounds cool right? The whole group took an overnight train to a northern district of Karnataka (the state in which Bangalore is located) called Koppal. This is a very rural district where we helped build a meditation building for the less privileged people to find peace and serenity. We also spent a lot of time with girls who are descendants of temple prostitutes and spoke with women who have taken a stand and been able to declare themselves the last generation of temple prostitutes in their districts. During the week we spoke with farmers and bonded labor children who have to work to fund their fathers’ drinking problems, human hair wig makers, handloom and machine loom household industries, Dalit “untouchable” people, the superintendent of the police force in Koppal(the police in India are notorious for their corruption in soliciting and taking bribes), and we visited Hampi(ancient Hindu ruins). It was a packed week in which we met with and exchanged cultural knowledge with countless people.

We went to a movie one of the nights and I had a wonderful chat with one of the Visthar staff members named Nasser. Him and I discussed concerns about the psychological affects of the Devidasi (temple prostitution) system on the girls who have been brought to the Visthar schools. I mentioned having noticed a closeness between Nasser and the girls, a claim he acknowledged by saying many of the girls saw him as a father figure. These girls’ fathers do not publically acknowledge them or often even indirectly support them. It is strange for me to wrap my mind around the idea of parents not claiming their children where my parents often embarrass me with social, public praise at gatherings.

We began to chat about how so much of what we learn as socially acceptable is from watching and being advised by parents. Nasser told me the girls do not replace their mothers with the house mothers that take care of them at the school, yet in most cases they do not ever know their fathers so they are easily replace by him. It may be due to their lack of interaction with the opposite sex at an all girls school and coming from a home where the only parent was female. Visthar has, in the past 1 or 2 years, begun to mentally prepare their students for a world where their are men they will need to positively interact with and causes me to shudder at the possibilities were this counseling not available to them. I super cautious when it comes to men, yet if these girls are either paranoid or careless in their dealings with the opposite sex in a world where men mainly dominate their lives could be inexplicably difficult despite the great start Visthar’s education and practical skills teaching has given them.

Friday, September 11, 2009

This one hurt

I am angry.

We just got back from our night out at an establishment we thought was going to be a good place to hang out and chill after a long studious week. It ended up being a strip club and all 13 of us loud, obnoxious, white-skinned Americans were given the best seats in the house. We of course failed to notice a few obvious cultural signals until it was too late: the only women there stood in a line instead of groups wearing extravagant saris or pants that were way to tight for Indian standards, the men looked at the women and us with hungry smiles, all of the benches were facing into the dance floor and the women, and there was a sign on the door that said “Ladies Services” in large, bold letters. Outside of the place we sat and waited for our swaraji bus to arrive as cars pulled up or slowed down, rolling down windows and giving us 10 ladies and 2 guys the same looks that men were giving the women on the dance floor; they looked hungry and expectant. When we passed by one of the cars the men in that car had gazes that intensified and I felt forcibly naked, worried that they could see through my kurtah.

I am so sick of being in a large, totally conspicuous group of loud, obnoxious, white-skinned Americans and my desire to detach from my home country is intensified. It’s not fair that I have beauty preference and privilege in this vain country because of my fair skin color, but it’s also not fair that I should be labeled a loose woman or even a slut for that same “privilege” which I disdain. Being a minority, even if it is a good thing sometimes, is degrading to me.

I am fuming about the women who are stripping in that upper room all decked out in beautiful saris just so they can take them off. When we got back I rushed back to my room feeling disgusting for even wearing jewelry at all and feeling it burning so much that I want to rip it off as fast as I can. We don’t want to judge these people, but we all did. I want to physically slap the men at the bar we went to and yell at them how precious and personal a person’s body is and how it ought to be valued and kept sacred! I want to shake them, saying that bodies are not to be made into a commodity as the world markets would have it be! I want to smash in the smile of the men glaring hungrily, lusting after a human being, and tell them about the intellectual power of a woman and how that makes her truly beautiful, a wild and magnificent stallion that need not be tamed only respected.

My inner wild and magnificent nature is not, will never be tamed

and I am so angry…

Thursday, September 10, 2009

This week we are doing yoga with an instructor every morning this week, and I plan on continuing it while I am here and hopefully when I get home too because it is a great way to start the morning. Other than that and breakfast, the days are not super regular. On days there is class we start around 9:15-9:30 am, have chai and biscuits around 11, then class again until lunch at about 1 or 2, and then either some type of speaker or experience for a couple hours in the afternoon evening.

All water I consume, even for brushing teeth, is filtered and the food has given my stomach a round trip ticket to the bathroom many times...however, I am feeling much better today after being sick for 5 days. Sometimes, especially when I was sick, I take food that I want to try and end up not liking it, then I proceed to either make myself throw up by eating it or to simply throw it out. I feel guilty about “simply” throwing it away and am reminded of the walk I took through the slum and the beggars at the basilica. I feel so spoiled and privileged and white. I wonder how much the average Indian associates the color of my pale skin with the negative connotations such as being wasteful or if I am “simply” seen as privileged and unaccountable. I sometimes feel as if I am personally a part of colonization, whether I like it or not.

We are all in a dormitory-type building in which we all have a roommate and a bathroom to share in each room, which is much nicer than I was expecting! At the slums, you have to pay at least 1 rupee every time you go to the one squatting bathroom in your area and toilet paper is NOT included in that deal. Many people in India share one unsanitary outhouse with all of their neighbors and I only have to compete for bathroom time with my roommate. This situation reminds me of my bathroom at home and the one in the apartment I lived in last year at Concordia. I would get frustrated at not getting to take my shower at the time that I wanted to take it. In both situations I get to use a clean, well-maintained bathroom that comes complete with as much toilet paper as I need. Is this wasteful or just different and “modern” in stature? If we had fewer bathrooms in the US would we waste less toilet paper and water? Save trees, use your hand Indian style?...I don't think I'll ever be comfortable with not using toilet paper!

Tuesday, September 8, 2009

more, More, MORE!

Wow, so this last weekend was amazing in many ways. We celebrated the festival Onam on Friday: Legend has it that there was a great and wealthy king, named Mahabelli, who took good care of all the people in his kingdom. The god's grew jealous and one of them came down in the form of a small man. When Mahabelli noticed the little man he offered to help him and so the little man asked for 3 literal paces of land, which the king obliged him. Just then, the little man grew into a large giant, covering the whole earth with one step, the sky with another, and with the third he was going to step on Mahabelli's head, but just before he could, he granted Mahabelli a chance to come back to the earth once every year. The festival of Onam is to commemorate the return of Mahabelli, around harvest time, and to celebrate his return as a sign of prosperity.
We had a procession, ate a 26 course meal on banana leaves, and played traditional games. All the SJPD students got to serve the Bandhavi girls first before eating, which was really neat. A girl I feel especially close to, Shri Devi, fed me a banana chip as I served her, which is a sign of affection and it almost made me cry because it was such a beautiful gesture.
Then, it was time to go to the home stays for that weekend. I st
ayed with a Muslim family with the hopes of being able to fast with them during this month of Rhamadan. It was frustrating for me though because of rule #4: when Indians host you, you must eat and eat some more, even if you feel sick. I felt so yucky and tired due to jet lag...but I literally choked down some rice and dal and "skipped" off to bed. That whole weekend I felt yucky, being forced to eat and not being allowed to fast...which probably would have been very good for me. The family was very kind and hospitable, but not incredibly engaging...I also was unsure of what I could ask them about personally, and more importantly, what I couldn't ask them about. I did have a marvelous time playing with the 3 1/2 year old girl, Nashita,
and holding the beautiful little 3 moth old boy named Zahim. I was brought to a few American-looking places(Indian Target and Murices), but bought a couple Kurtahs(longer tunics you wear with pants) at a smaller shop- they are beautiful! Coming home to Visthar was amazing, and reflecting back on my home stay, it wasn't that bad, I just was too sick and culture stressed to enjoy it how I could have.
Today we all were charged with the task of hopping different buses in small groups and meeting at a large Basilica in the heart of Bangalore...Scary! The women and men enter different sides of the bus to avoid hassling
that usually takes place and they sit in their respective sides. I ended up sitting by a wonderful woman who was on the bus with her husband and twin daughters. What a blessing she was to us!
She was going to the same place as us and spoke great English so we got to know each other pretty well. When we got to our stop there were so many shops on the way to the basilica and she bought me and the other two girls in
our group our first set of bangles! I praise God for her and know that He helped me by sending her because I was super nervous about this trip and asked some friends to pray for me...He answers prayer!
At the basilica there were people lined up for 3 km and we would have had to wait a really long time to get up to the shrine, so our fearless leader told the officials were from Rome(the basilica is Roman Catholic) and they let us right up to the front. I felt devious but also kinda sad to play on the extreme prejudices of Indians. All around were little children, big children, adults who often had maimed themselves for sympathy, and many others who were begging us for money. We could not give them anything because it would encourage their begging and we should invest in good organizations that help them instead of supporting possible ring leaders in charge of the children or the adults who might use the money for drugs or who knows what else. :( It made me think of the movie "Slumdog Millionaire"

P.S.- I ate lamb brain today!!! Now that is a REALLY gross textured food MIKE!
This is what it looked like

Wednesday, September 2, 2009

Today was a really long day and we did so much...however, I'm not necessarily wanting to share the details of it because it was just so much to take in. Basically, we rode a bus for the fist time and went to a slum followed by going to an alabaster shopping mall of high-end, American stuff. Then we went and ate at a really amazing restaurant with large leaves for plates, the Hindu bull temple, botanical gardens in the south end of Bengaluru(Bangalore) and stopping at a tea stand where people stay around and chat over scalding chai before heading back in awful traffic. Um, lots to analyze and I'm so tired that the last couple nights I didn't eat supper(no worries, all meals are huge and filling so skipping a meal is not a big deal, and I have granola bars). We are all tired in the group but are keeping things cool for now.
#3- ask lots of questions or you run a high risk of insulting people, being insulted, or not learning near as much as you could otherwise. #4- do not look people directly in the eyes because that way you run the risk of appearing too friendly and thereby welcoming unwanted's hard to know how and who you can respectfully greet in what context and in what way, uftah!

Tuesday, September 1, 2009

I'm here!

I arrived in Bangalore just yesterday. The weather is in the upper 70's and I am full of anticipation! Yesterday was rough to try and stay awake because of the 10 1/2 hour time difference, all the information thrown at us about do's and don'ts for staying healthy in India and we also took a rather long walk into the nearest town after chai time and before dinner. My dorm is shared with a fellow group member named Ayah, and our pad comes complete with mosquito netting over the beds, one lock dresser for us each, and a full bathroom, it's way better than I had expected! The food here is amazing, as made by our head cook named Clara, but I am trying to only eat it in small doses so I don't get sick. Last night I wrote in my journal and joined the group for a singalong in the rec room upstairs before spending a night(American day) trying to adjust to the time difference...But this morning I woke up bright and cheery to the sound of our musical water filter I am so happy to be here! This morning we ate breakfast before commencing with our first class. Mercy, a leader at Visthar, lead our first class by asking us to each think of ourselves and our lives in terms of a river and to draw that river. We then presented our rivers to each other and it was illuminated that each of us had mad ourselves vulnerable to the rest of the group in sharing common themes of struggle, family/relationships, and a combination of mystery and a sense of purpose were evident in our group presentations. David, another leader of Visthar, told us that we are angry prophets who, if rooted in love, will be able to fulfill man purposes in this world. I feel so blessed to be here and to have an outlet for my passions for people and cultures!
I will be concluding each of my blogs with lessons I have learned here thus far, a kind of "how to survive India" type of thing if you will. #1- do not assume that your surge protector is compatible with the country's current, I plugged mine in and it crackled and sizzled in seconds, making my room stink of burnt plastic! #2- eating with only your right hand is absolutely necessary but not easy when it comes to having to tear bread one-handed and also being asked to pass a dish with your right hand, I get a little confused sometimes as to what is rude and what is normal!
P.S.- tonight is our inauguration ceremony at which we will be garlanded, sung to by the Bandhavi girls rescued from the Devidasi(God slaves literally translated), honored by a delegate, and we will sing "Lean on Me" as a representation of our culture!