Wednesday, September 8, 2010

Week 2: American Yes or Indian Yes?

Namaste! The title of this blog post refers to the famous Indian head bobble. Sometimes, when speaking to someone here, he will slightly shake his head like he is agreeing with what you are saying, while he is actually just acknowledging that he is listening. As if that weren't confusing enough, sometimes people answer questions with a resounding yes, when they really mean no, in order to save face or avoid offending anyone. Like when I get into a rickshaw, I'll ask someone to take me to a restaurant, for example, and the driver will nod and tell me to get in. But then he stops along the way to ask for directions from an average of 3 people. This happened the other day when I had to go to my host family's house for dinner (we do this every Sunday). I told him I needed to go near a gym, and he took me to a church. I'm not sure if the name of the church is similar or if he just thought that's where the white people go, but the Indian yes was totally in effect. We tend to conceive of these actions as purposely misleading or insincere, but here, it's the simple actions that let you know how people feel about you.

Yesterday, we took a field trip to two villages run by an NGO that has a partnership with AJWS. The members of the villages are Dalits, or Untouchables. Although it is technically illegal, untouchability is still a major part of life in India. The caste system, objectively speaking, is a system in which spiritual heritage and cultural practices are passed down through generations. Additionally, Hindus think that the caste into which you are born (Brahmin at the top, or untouchable at the bottom, which is actually not even part of the official system) is a result of your karma. If you lived a really good past life, you might be born as a Kshatriya or Brahmin, whereas if you lived in the opposite manner, you might be born a Sudra. Untouchables are called so because they perform duties that are considered impure. There are subcastes even within Dalits, and the lowest members, manual scavengers, handle dead bodies or clean sewage systems and toilets. The NGO works in these villages in several capacities, but under the auspices of improving Dalit rights and education. In both villages, we met with women's rights councils to learn about grassroots organizations and the problems members of the villages face.

Because I did not take any pictures yesterday, I will attempt to describe the people and the villages. You might be wondering why I did not break out my camera, and the simple answer is that it would have been intrusive to show up to their homes and imply, by taking pictures of how they lived, that the poverty and discrimination that is wrought upon them can be captured and passed along, as if those who saw them would understand. At some point, when I get to Bombay and start working in the slums, I will take pictures, but only after I know who I am photographing. Anywho, the villages did not look how I pictured them. I had only been to a rural village, so I was picturing huts scattered in a field, but they had solidly built houses, although with some scrap metal roofing, and they lived on dusty roads close to an industrial area. Sunita (the Indian coordinator for WPF) told us that the village was better off than most, as some of the houses had electricity and running water, and it seemed that all of the children went to school, even if it had to be in shifts. The men and women work at nearby factories. The men are assistants or work on the assembly lines, and they make about $2 a day, while the women tend to do backbreaking labor, but make only $1 a day. We went to meet with the women's council, who had formed to deal with a widow whose land was taken away because, as her husband had died, she no longer had a right to it. We all sat down, and the women stood up and introduced themselves one by one. Interestingly, after they said their names, they said the names of their mothers, grandmothers, and mothers-in-law. They told us that generally men told their relatives' names, and they too wanted a strong family line. One woman even told her husband's name, which is very rare here. They are just referred to as Mr. So-and-So, or Patidev, pati being husband, and dev a diminutive referring to God. They talked about problems in their village, like how the upper-case people who live in another area won't let them go to the temple, but they don't have money to build their own. They asked us questions too, like why we would want to work on discrimination in India while we still have a lot in the states. After we finished speaking, a man who works for the NGO started a chant in which they praised B.M. Ambedkar, a Dalit who wrote India's constitution, led the movement against untouchability, and ultimately converted to Buddhism with a few thousand followers to escape the caste system (also a Columbia grad woot woot!).

After a very long drive through rice paddies and herds of water buffaloes (I kind of felt like I was back in Vietnam, except for the rice hats), we made it to the second village. They dealt mostly with domestic violence and were trying to get the district politician to prosecute those who sold alcohol on the black market (it's illegal in Gujarat), because the men would drink all day, not go to work, and then beat their wives. They went to the district office to file a report, but he didn’t respond, so they’ve been going back and throwing rocks at him. It’s not a method I would suggest, but the spirit and self-determination these women have is unbelievable. Apparently this sort of aggression is common of Dalit women, who are considered thrice oppressed: they are Dalits, poor, and female. I was able to speak to a few of the women because of my limited Hindi, but I can already tell how far that communication goes. The woman who runs the council told me to invite everyone back to stay at her house, and despite the fact that she has maybe 3 rooms, terrible drinking water and inconsistent electricity, I know she meant it. There was this one elderly woman with tattoos on her hand, arms, and face who took to me for some reason and held my hand as we walked to the car. She was barefoot, walking right through the mud and cow shit, and I gingerly stepped around everything brown, but there we were. People might pass judgment on the corruption and religious divisions that plague the government, but maybe Gandhi had something right when he said that the future of India lay in the villages.

The day wasn't totally heart wrenching, though, because despite what people might think in the West, these women are doing more for themselves than we could ever do for them. They might need some legal or financial assistance, but we could tell the effect they've had, albeit just in their own villages, when the men would speak about how they support the work that they do. There is a lot of work to be done, but the spirit is there. And it was also very funny when a dog peed on Seth's shoe. He had to wear it the whole day.

Although I didn't take pictures, I still have some to share!

This is the synagogue in which we will celebrate Rosh Hashanah. I will try to take some better pictures, but it was filled with Indian Jews. Indians wearing yarmulkes. It was awesome.

This is Zack getting a shave on the street. It cost less than a dollar, until he added face/head massages onto the end. But it was fun to watch, and people in the street seemed to enjoy watching too.

This is my Bombay family, aka David and Ava. I will be living with Ava, and David is trying to find housing nearby, but in the meantime he'll use our kitchen because he is apparently an awesome chef.

This is the whole group! It was Katie's birthday, so we had a little party. Gandhiji came too. From left to right: Andrew, Seth, David, Jamie, Zack on the floor, Katie, Arielle, me, Ava, Yael and Shaina.

Lastly, some deliciousness:

This is a Gujarati thali. They keep refilling your plate until you're full. It's amazing. That's all for now, I'm off to synagogue! Shana Tova!


  1. This was beautifully written and incredibly enlightening! Shana Tova to you and your friends! XOXOXOXO

  2. Samosa, This was wonderful. Mom and I are still dealing with your absence, but this insight reminds us of the purpose. Thank you. Shana Tovah to you. Maybe next year in New Jersey. All our love and continued admiration M & D