Pondicherry, Auroville, Tuberculosis




Kaavya took Isabella and I to the cinema last week, truly an experience in itself. The “Kollywood” movie we saw called Nanban (starring the famous Vijay) was 3.5 hours long and in Tamil with no subtitles so Kaavya sat between us and loudly announced all the important stuff in English. We had an “interval” halfway through, but the theater was out of popcorn (how does this happen??) I leave you with the greatest soundtrack song; I hear Indians singing this on the street all the time, and it’s the song of about every Indian man’s cell phone.

Last weekend our professor Bree took us to Pondicherry. We stopped at this crazy 9 course ayurvedic restaurant for lunch– things like date juice, nut milk, butter milk, sweet uncooked puttu, semi-cooked veggie dishes, then fully cooked veg dishes, rice with dhal, sanbar, rasam, etc etc then payasam, honey, and natural beeda.

As a former French colony, in Pondicherry you find French cuisine and architecture (and European tourists) alongside Hindu temples, autorickshaws and Indian street bazaars– it was such a welcome respite from Chennai! The first night set the scene for the weekend: walking down the beach to a French/Italian restaurant and spending 2 hours with wine, tomato-mozzarella salads, margherita pizzas, fish and steak, followed by relaxing on our balcony and talking to an Irish fella who bikes around the world solo and discovers then writes about canals. Saturday we headed to Auroville, a self-supporting intentional community that was founded 44 years ago as the “perfect world model.” It’s an experiment in human unity and the transformation of consciousness. People of all races, backgrounds and ages come to live in this universal town where men and women of all countries are able “to live in peace and progressive harmony above all creeds, all politics and all nationalities.” There are no rules. There are no societal classes. Religions and material possessions and political closed-mindedness are discouraged. There is no money exchange or income. Every member offers his or her own skills, be it a carpenter, doctor, artist or yogi, and offers them to the community. There’s an ashram, schools that teach children to be trilingual, and 7 farms. To join, you come for 4 months as a guest, then spend 1 full “trial year” there before settling down for real and building your house. We walked down winding red dirt roads to the Matrimandir, the big golden sphere that was seen by the Mother as the “symbol of the Divine’s answer to man’s aspiration for perfection” (photo at the top); it’s actually an architectural disaster. Then their beautiful solar-powered kitchen for lunch! Europeans, Australians, Americans and Asians clad in hippie-meets-yogi clothes mingled around their organically-grown lunches on floor cushions, drinking “dynamized water” that has been purified then infused with high-frequency sound and light waves. Transformational stuff. I bombarded our guide, an Indian who has lived in Auroville for 14 years, with a billion questions about crime, segregation, community events, and sustainability of Auroville. And still I’m skeptical. The philosophy of building a world on these ideals is admirable, but how can you possibly unite such a variety of people under one mission without disputes, greed, violence? I’m fascinated by the concept and would love to return as a volunteer (and live in a tree house for $2/day) to better understand. At the end of our visit we all checked out the few boutiques where Auroville women sold handmade clothing, pottery, journals, books, and kombucha tea. It bothered me how the consumerism and materialism of outsiders like us that these boutiques cater to are exactly the concepts that Auroville rejects. And after spending all day learning about this rich worldly and meaningful life without possessions, what compelled us to go buy things?Back to some academics. Monday we visited YRGK-Care, the center for HIV/AIDS Research and Education– it’s a private organization that supplements the government’s programs and community-based organizations (CBOs). The best part was hearing from Dr. Saniti Soloman, the founder of YRGK who detected the first case of HIV in India in 1986 when she went into the field seeking to prove HIV/AIDS didn’t EXIST in India! She spoke about her “unethical, amateur” research testing sex workers in Tamil Nadu, and how no hospital would take HIV/AIDS patients so Australians built two huts in which to treat them. Today, nurses from YRGK’s hospital ride scooters wearing saris to patients’ homes to prevent stigma. Beyond educational and treatment programs, YRGK arranges marriages based on clinical compatibility, matching HIV status and life expectancy. They also facilitate artificial insemination for HIV+ couples, and supports the Pi Foundation, which sells Pi bags (sold in Whole Foods so GO BUY ONE!) made by former sex workers and funding HIV/AIDS prevention education to women in South India. When we asked Dr. Soloman about funding sources for YRGK, she told us about a man whose wife tested false-positive and he is now donating the 5,000 rupees every month to YRGK that would have paid for her treatment!For lunch, we visited an initiative of YRGK: ECO-Kitchen (Enhancing Community Opportunities). This awesome solar-powered kitchen has a 30,000 meal production-capacity. 600 litres of sanbar in 40 minutes. After a delicious lunch they explained all eco-conscious technology like briquettes, solar geysers, a waste water treatment plant that irrigates the garden…and more things I don’t really understand. Their 3 programs are very cool; one is a micro-entrepreneurship for women that gives female victims of domestic violence, HIV/AIDS, or whose husbands are IDUs increased financial literacy, mobility and empowerment by equipping them with food carts to sell on the street after buying the food from eco-kitchen. Wednesday we had the opportunity to seek out any organization around Chennai that interested us. A few of us set up a visit with REACH– a nonprofit working to prevent and treat tuberculosis in India. Anne showed us around the office and explained the organization; besides media campaigns and short videos promoting testing and prevention, they implement the DOTS program: Directly Observed Treatment. TB, contagious by coughing, is treated through a series of pills over 6 months. Private doctors often administer incorrect doses or fail to stress the importance of continuing the entire course of treatment, so once patients start feeling better after 3 weeks, they stop the meds and TB returns. REACH sets up a DOTS center in government hospitals and works with providers to send patients here three times a week to get their pills; they are “directly observed” by a REACH staff member when they swallow the pills, and they receive a punch in their pill calendar. This support system (human contact) and assurance that they’re taking every pill ensures full recovery. Anne took us to a government hospital– in a group of 33 this whole day would never have happened! The DOTS center was a tiny tiny space under a staircase. We all crowded in and listened intently as Anne translated what was happening. The line was out the door, and the first patient we “directly observed” was an elderly man who appeared severely undernourished, wearing a tattered unbuttoned shirt and a white cloth wrapped around his waist. This man was living with HIV and tuberculosis. He held out a bony, leathery hand and the REACH staff member dropped 10 giant pills into it. He threw them back with a gulp of water like a pro, leaving us in awe. This was one of the most intense experiences I’ve had so far in India. I realized that this was the first person I’ve ever seen in real life living with HIV (and TB); putting a face and context to the statistics we hear every day was, well, intense. I wanted to cry, which felt silly. We watched a few more men and 1 woman swallow their handfuls of pills and get their cards punched before leaving the hospital and moving on to a patient’s home, where a REACH volunteer visits him three times a week to administer his treatment. The 6 of us were dropped off on the outskirts of a neighborhood in Aleyar of 1-room huts built on dirt floors. We took off our shoes and crowded in to meet the TB patient who lived with his wife. The man had TB last year and completed the treatment but became an alcoholic, which prompted the return of TB. He spoke no English but was incredibly happy to see us there, showing we cared and wanted to learn. We visited a REACH volunteer’s home next, set in a tiny 5th floor apartment. She spoke about the patient who comes to her three times a week to get his treatment, and how rewarding an experience it is. The day ended on a hopeful note. I took the afternoon to explore solo and ended up journaling and drinking a mango smoothie at a little fruit stand. A few random thoughts… Anemia is really common among Indian women. Since I’m not eating any red meat nor the plethora of greens I usually eat, plus my naturally sorta-low iron levels, I’m convinced I’m iron-deficient. So I asked for some iron supplements at the pharmacy and was given a lil pack o pills for fifty cents and “do not take without prescription” bolded on the back. Texted my mum the info for her to google, and turns out these pills are like 5x the amount of iron I’d need– potentially toxic levels! Hmmmm….good thing Argentina’s famous for it’s meat! This perpetual exhaustion from the long 7am-1am days, rice-based diet and 90 degree temps is getting to me. What I wouldn’t give for one day of sleeping in, one of my dad’s omelets for breakfast, a Bard iced chai in the Old Port… some fresh brussel sprouts and asparagus and butternut squash and hazelnut gelato and lemon seltzer and beaches I can swim in AHHH Dharshu asked to paint my nails the other night, and all I could think about was Salma in Fes, Morocco crouched over my toes meticulously painting each nail with 20 strokes. There’s a watchman who lives in the little garage of our apartment. He’s maybe 20 years old and sleeps on this little cot every night. I often pass him lying in bed with what I’ve come to believe are his only possessions: an MP3 player and a mirror. Some evenings I see him lying in bed simply staring at himself, holding the big plastic mirror in front of his face. I can’t place why exactly this breaks my heart.