Wednesday, August 27, 2008

Two Very Different Birthdays

Mumbai is an incredibly noisy city. Since we live in a home without air conditioning, our windows are open most of the time. That means I get to hear just about everything that happens around my flat, from the roasted corn vendor who sits outside our gate to the honking of rickshaw horns to the school children being dismissed at the end of the day. It hasn’t taken me long to learn how to completely tune out the incessant buzz of urban Indian life. But on Sunday morning, the “volume down” switch in my brain met its match.

I was awakened to the roar of a massive crowd chanting, singing and beating drums outside my window. I had no idea what was going on, but quickly decided I was better off staying inside than venturing out to investigate. When I finally needed to make the journey to the train station to head for weekly worship services, the noise had died down somewhat. However, as soon as I arrived at the station, I was greeted with a sight that fully explained the earlier disturbance.

Unbeknownst to me, Sunday was a rather major holiday for Hindus. Known as “Dahi Handi” (translating as Yogurt Pot) this day is part of the birth celebration of Krishna, one of the Hindu gods. The legend is that Krishna had an affinity for milk products and used to steal from the pot of village girl and women. In order to save their food from this mischievous 8th incarnation of Vishnu, women strung their pots up on a rope.

In Mumbai, the 2nd day of Krishna’s birth celebration is commemorated with Dahi Handi, in which teams of men form human pyramids in an effort to reach a clay pot full of yogurt that has been strung up above the crowd. The team that reaches the pot is rewarding with significant prize money, so the competition is pretty fierce. Teams will typically spend the day travelling from one pot to another, trying to win as much money as possible. The noise I heard when I awoke was the commencement of this lively event.

I was fortunate enough to stumble on this particular team just as they were adding their last member to the top. Unfortunately, though the effort was quite commendable, he wasn’t quite tall enough to reach the pot, so they had to load back up in their bus and move on to a hopefully slightly shorter setup.

But, as the title of my post mentions, Krishna’s is not the only birth that was celebrated on Sunday. After stumbling upon Dahi Handi, I went to the worship services I attend every week. There, we had a wonderful spiritual birth of a lovely woman named Madhu (which translates to “honey” in Hindi). I know that everyone reading my blog comes from diverse religious backgrounds, so for those of you who don’t know, I’ll just give a brief explanation of what this means. Madhu has been studying the Bible for quite some time, but had not felt sure she believed that Jesus Christ is the incarnation and Son of God, or that she wanted to accept Him as her Lord. But on Sunday, Madhu finally decided that she fully believes what the Bible teaches about Jesus, and that this belief compelled her to make a commitment to follow Him. She publicly acknowledged that she has sin in her life (as we all do), confessed her belief in Jesus as the Son of God, and then was baptised. Baptism is symbolic of the fact that when a person converts to Christianity, the sinful person dies. She is “buried” under the water, and when she comes up, she is reborn sinless and covered by God’s grace. So, for many Christians, the day of their baptism is as much of a birthday celebration as the day of their physical birth, since it marks the start of a new life in Jesus.

Happy Birthday, Madhu!

Obviously this is an extremely simplified explanation of this process. If anyone wants me to explain more, let me know. My faith is a huge part of who I am, and I love to talk about it and compare with others’ experiences.

Ultimately, it was pretty interesting to see two very different faiths celebrate births on the same day in two totally different ways. Only in India!

Saturday, August 23, 2008

A Feminist Counts Her Blessings

I’ve now been at my field placement for 3 weeks- or 6 full days (since I go twice a week). It has taken a while to get settled in, but I think I finally have an idea of what my job there will entail. The school I go to really emphasizes that this first field placement is more of an observation and learning period than it is a time for us to contribute to the good of the agency. My “tasks”, therefore, are meant to benefit me almost as much, if not more, than they benefit Akshara itself. A big part of the benefit that I specifically am supposed to derive from my time there is a better understanding of Indian culture.

To help facilitate that learning process, Akshara has assigned me the task of going through their library of feminist literature and compiling databases of articles and books that relate to specific topics. A lot of college students come and use the agency’s library when they have to do research papers for Women’s Studies courses. But because the school system in India is so different, many university students have never done any type of research before, and don’t know where to begin. So, if I can go through and read up on different topics related to Women’s Studies in India and figure out which resources might be good starting places for the students, it will help guide their process. The nice thing about this job for me is that, while I might have a fair level of knowledge on women’s issues in the U.S., I know next to nothing about their manifestations in the Indian context. Going through these articles, therefore, is educating me on the society I live in and how it views women, and why. While I personally find it incredibly fascinating to read all of these histories, I know a lot of you might not be so interested, so I won’t go into the details of what all I have learned. If you want to hear about it, though, send me a message and I’ll be glad to write an email!

Also, because I will be working with this agency for the next year, and they don’t want me to sit in the library the whole time, we’ve worked out a few other future projects I might undertake. One of Akshara’s many programs is called the Empowering Dreams Program. It helps young girls and women acquire the necessary life-skills to become self-sufficient, thereby empowering them to pursue their goals and dreams for their lives. In addition to the scholarships they have for high school-aged girls, EPD wants to branch out into some other training programs for women who can’t go to formalized higher learning institutions. One of the things I might be doing with that is helping create English classes with a curriculum focusing on concepts of empowerment and educating women on their rights in society. Of course if I do get to help with this, it will be much later in my placement. Rest assured, though, that I will definitely keep you all posted about how this potential project develops.

I know that a lot of people have different opinions on “feminism” and what exactly this incredibly loaded term means. I’ve struggled a lot with how I feel about labelling myself as a “feminist” or about championing for women’s rights. But since coming to India, I’ve realized that the battle for equal, or even humane, treatment of the members of the female sex is far from won. The struggles women here face on a daily basis are incomprehensible to the “liberated” American female. True, there are glass ceilings in the United States. Yes, sexual harassment, domestic violence and rape are issues that need to be addressed. But compared to India, ladies, we are BLESSED! As I said, I won’t bore you with historical accounts of the Women’s Movement in India, but suffice it to say that until you have experienced dowry deaths, sathi (look it up!), “eve teasing” and the like, until you’ve had religiously-sanctioned prostitution and spouse abuse thrust in your face, you haven’t seen the level that sexism can reach.

Okay, I am not officially climbing off of my soapbox! I hope this post, rather than depressing you, has inspired greater appreciation for the efforts of so many women (and men) in the past to allow us the freedoms we in the U.S., France, or wherever, experience. Today, I encourage you ALL, men and women alike, to say a prayer of thanks for the incredible blessings God has given us. Even if you live in India or somewhere else where the struggle is still very real, remember that you’ve come a long way, and that there is still so much that can be done!
(Here is a picture of my field partner, Janice, happily typing away. She's so patient and helpful! I don't know what I'd do without her!)

Tuesday, August 19, 2008

Not as Bad as It Looks

There isn't much to report here since my last post. But I thought I'd give you all a "taste" of India and show you my latest food find! These interesting-looking green blobs are actually a really yummy fruit that is coming into season here. Ramphal, bullock's heart, or custard apple, call it what you like. Though not exactly appealing on the outside, this fruit has a really sweet and mild taste that I can't really compare to anything. I don't know if these can even be found in the U.S. Their odd, lumpy peel isn't exactly something that would have drawn me to them in the produce section! I will forwarn you though, should you seek this out at your local grocery store and actually find it, custard apples are probably the messiest fruit I've ever tried. So, if you are so inclined, arm yourself with a napkin (or two) and give a new, exotic fruit a try!

Saturday, August 16, 2008

Happy 61st!

I think August 15th is just meant to be a holiday for me. Everywhere I have ever lived, this date has had special significance. Ever since 1986, it has been a pretty cool day in the U.S. because it's the day my little sister came into the world! Happy Belated birthday, sister! (don't worry...I'm not only wishing her a happy birthday on my blog. I did call yesterday!) Then, when I moved to France, August 15th was a National Holiday known as Ascension, or, the day that the Virgin Mary is supposed to have been taken up into heaven. (Don't get me started on how a "secular" nation can consider that to be a holiday!) And now that I am in India, August 15th is an even more official holiday: Indian Independence Day!
For all of you history enthusiasts out there, August 15th, 1947 is the official day that India won its independence from the British Rule. So, while India as a culture is incredibly old, India as an independent nation has only been around for 61 years! Today, she is known as the world's largest democracy, with over a billion inhabitants, an estimated 670 million of whom participate in national elections. (For a frame of reference, the U.S. population is a little over 300 million.) But enough statistics! Let's get on to how I spent my very first Independence Day in India!
While Indians definitely celebrate their National Holiday to the max, unlike in the U.S., things don't really close down for it. Public transportation, restaurants, shops all ran on the 15th like any other day. The ebb and flow of traffic was different, since many offices were closed, but the streets were still very much alive right from the start of the day. Because I didn't have school yesterday, I ended up venturing out into the madness in order to attend a youth meeting that some Christians here were having in another part of the city. I left my flat around 8:45 and walked to the bus stop. From there, I took a bus, then a train, then a rickshaw to get to Goregaon, a suburb of Mumbai. I arrived at the meeting place at almost 11, which was pretty good time considering the distance I had to travel.

When I came in, I was immediately greeted with a typical Indian breakfast of Idli (steamed rice cakes) and a chutney who's contents I'm not too sure of, but enjoyed nonetheless.

We started the morning off with singing and praying and a few mini lessons from some of the younger boys and men. This was followed by some games, and then a nice lunch. After lunch, we had a few skits that the kids performed, and then watched a movie. The whole day wrapped up a little before 6pm.
The nice thing about this gathering was that, as you can tell, traveling anywhere in Mumbai takes quite a while. So, most of the people that I saw at the meeting live much too far away from me for us to maintain regular contact. Craig and Teresa Phillips, an American couple working in India, are two examples of that.
Before I came to India, Teresa really helped orient me about what to expect upon my arrival, and gave me lots of good advice. Since coming here, she has been a huge source of encouragement and a sounding board for all of my doubts and adjustment issues. I was so glad that I got to see her and her husband at this event, since, even though we live in the same city, it is rare that we get to do more than simply talk over the phone. And with Teresa expecting a baby literally any day now, those meetings are about to get even fewer and further between.

So, anyway, while there weren't any fireworks or parades to speak of, and while it certainly doesn't replace the 4th of July (which I love and missed so much this year!) Indian Independence day did get me in a pretty patriotic mood and helped me feel more at-ease and included in this incredibly foreign culture.

(on a side note, I find the way people here dress their daughters really ironic. Women are always covered to the max in traditional clothes, and the little girls wear tight, rhinestone-studded dresses! But she's adorable, so I don't care!)

Saturday, August 9, 2008

becoming a domestic goddess

Let me start off this post by apologizing for having been MIA for a while. I know I promised to try to update this blog fairly regularly, and believe me, I have been trying to find time to do that this week. It’s just been a bit hectic around here lately. Sadly, none of the things that have been keeping me so busy are truly “blog worthy”, so today’s post isn’t going to be incredibly exciting. Still, I hope it’s at least a little entertaining, and maybe even educational!
Okay, so among other things, one of the “not blog-worthy” ways I’ve been occupying my time lately has been doing laundry. Now for those of you living in the U.S., or probably most other Westernized nations, you’re probably thinking “Laundry has been keeping you busy?!” And to that, dear friends, I reply, “You have no idea….”
You see, doing laundry in India isn’t like doing laundry in the U.S. in almost any way. Let me illustrate: If you were writing a “How To” paper on doing laundry in the United States, what would be the first sentence you might write?
“Throw the clothes in the washing machine….”
Ooops. That’s not happening in India. Because, in order for me to throw my clothes in a washing machine, I would have to actually have a washing machine! But I don’t.
“Not to worry,” you say, “Take them to a laundry mat.”
Strike two. No laundry mats in India.
Well before you start worrying that I am running around in clothes so dirty they could run around on their own, let me tell you, there is another way! In fact, here’s a picture of it:
This humble bucket, scrub brush, and faucet are my Maytag replacements for the next couple of years. And even though they may not look like much, let me tell you, these guys have been serving me pretty well. While not everyone in India crouches on their bathroom floor and hand washes their clothes with a bar of laundry soap, this method of cleaning seems to be practiced by most of the population. And even though it is pretty common to opt to pay someone else to scrub for you, my experience with that has been “If you want something done right, you have to do it yourself.” (This is especially true when it comes to Westernized clothes like jeans and t-shirts, which Indian washers, called dobis, aren’t used to.) Washing my own clothes here has actually been a really good learning experience for me. My other roommates have given me a few pointers about techniques for getting out stains, and for wringing clothes dry once they’re rinsed. I’ve also figured out which of my clothes have colorfast dyes in them, and which don’t. And, since it’s monsoon (yes, I’m still talking about that!), I’ve become quite adept at learning how to rotate my clothes on the line strung across our bedroom, as it’s kind of hard to line dry clothes outside when it’s pouring rain....
The only problem I’ve been dealing with is that, again, since it’s monsoon, nothing seems to ever really get dry. That means a lot of planning on my part, since if I wait to do all my laundry on one day, I will be without clean, dry clothes for several days. It also means checking the clothes in my wardrobe frequently to make sure they haven’t grown mold. (I’m serious.) But, on the bright side, monsoon ends in September, so I just have one more month to go until having clean, dry, mold-free clothes will be within my reach!
On a different note, I wanted to thank everyone for the comments they leave on my blog. I know I don’t respond publicly ever, and I rarely respond privately, but I really do appreciate you all taking an interest in my life in India. And along those lines, since so many of you have asked, the mouse problem is still in limbo, as we found another furry friend a few days ago. But we are pretty sure we found the hole he was coming in through, so hopefully that will take care of the situation. And, going back to an even older post, I thought I would also tell anyone who is interested that I have decided that I like Banana Corn Flakes even better than Mango ones!