The past few weeks are a blur. Let me back up to last weekend’s festivities. Ama rented a car for the day and took Isabella and me to SRM University where Kaavya studies just outside Chennai. We strolled around the beautiful campus where she was holding an architecture symposium and on my first trip to the bathroom I discovered a giant hole in the crotch of my new white cotton pants. For the rest of the visit I was mostly focused on praying that we wouldn’t have to sit crosslegged on the floor like usual when eating lunch with Ama’s family. At the university, girls and boys live in different housing and the girls’ curfew is 6pm… World of difference! Visiting Ama’s sister’s family in a small village with bumpy narrow dirt roads was wonderful and delicious. So happy to be eating at a table…
Their home was an oasis amidst very apparent poverty. Ama’s brother-in-law spoke little English but proudly showed us all his awards from being one the best teachers in India and he took us up to the roof where he practices yoga and meditation. We saw his garden with henna trees and he gave us fresh papaya. Yum. Sunday’s wake-up call was 4:30am. Ama, Isabella and I piled into a rickshaw in the dark to watch the sunrise at Marina Beach!
That day we got a few other families together to visit Cholamandal Artists’ Village, India’s largest artists’ commune just north of Chennai. This place is awesome: sculptors, musicians, painters and craftsmen live this little self-supported community and pool their skills to offer exhibits and galleries and sell their work. We walked through this beautiful village admiring potters, glass blowers, jewelry-makers and stonecutters hard at work. We also stumbled across a wedding celebration, dance practice, a few museums, and homes depicting traditional architecture styles of different Indian regions and castes. After the Artists’ Village we checked out some crocodiles and snakes at a little crocodile park.
A few ramblings…
Every morning around 5am when Ama wakes up, she sprinkles the entrance just outside our door with a bit of water then drops rice flour to create an intricate pattern symbolizing a god or goddess—this is an old South Indian tradition called Kolam and I love seeing all the new patterns every morning when I walk to the bus stop.
Every dinner is an adventure. Our floor-meals are really intimate and informal and fun and it’s where all the best conversations happen—often lasting hours. Last week we spent two hours talking about sex education (Ama sent Darshu to her room and admitted that it was the first time she had spoken about sex openly in front of Kaayva) and the nature of relationships—fascinating and we learned so much from each other.
The flower ladies are my favorite. They live across the street and are always tying together strings of colourful flowers. On Valentine’s Day I delivered a bar of chocolate and they fastened a bunch of yellow and pink flowers in my hair.
Coconut oil is now on my list of favourite things. We eat it, use it to prolong/darken henna, and moisturize our skin. Isabella and I woke up early last week for Ama to give us scalp massages and rub the oil into our hair…all while sitting in “proper yoga positions.” We waited 30 minutes before washing it out and our hair was super soft and I wanted to eat it.
Exercising before class on our roof is quite a spectacle and brings all the neighboring boys out to watch from their rooftops. Pretty hilarious. Even more hilarious that Ama won’t let us shower for at least 10 minutes post-workout and we can’t watch TV that day.
During class, the Indian men who work at the hotel literally barge in when it’s time for tea and snacks. They converse really loudly in Tamil and totally drown out our discussions, I always look forward to it.
At the bazaar the other night and wanted to throw out my waterbottle. I approached one of the jewelry stands and asked the man to throw away my bottle if he had a trashcan (recycling would be outta the question.) He nodded, smiled, took the plastic bottle. And proceeded to chuck it over my head onto the street and grin at me: “There’s the trashcan!”
On Valentine’s Day as we were nomming on heart shaped donuts I asked Ama if she generally lets Darshu eat what she wants. Her response: “Of course. Children can eat whatever they want until they get married.”So, I asked, if she wanted to, would ya let her eat all these donuts and this whole chocolate cake right now by herself? “Sure! Whatever she wants. But she can’t have candy. The cake isn’t bad because it has eggs!”
There are sporadic fireworks around 8pm. We try to run up to the roof to watch, but you never know when they’ll start or how long they’ll last. ALSO: A.R. Rahman (composer of the Slumdog Millionnairre soundtrack) LIVES IN OUR NEIGHBORHOOD!
Alright, gonna touch on academics a little so bear with me! Dr. Ram, our country coordinator, gave us a lecture on India the first day we were here, explaining the four seasons in India (“hot, hotter, burning hell, and wet”), the intricacies of this giant country of 1.2 billion that adds an Australia worth of people every year, and the bold divides between North and South, Hindu and Muslim, and wealth and poverty. Then Professor Sudhakar chatted with us about ancient, medieval and modern history and highlighted the biggest societal issues in India: the corruption and the caste system. A lecture on the health care system followed by Dr. Desikachari, who explained the structure, the coexistence of western and traditional medicine, India’s National Rural Health Mission and its structural-adjustment policy. Our first site visit was to the National Institute of Epidemiology where we sat through 4 lectures/discussions. The first was on epidemiology in India and the second was on environmental epidemiology (mostly about ethics and illnesses with the largest environmental attribution like diarrhea, respiratory infections and malaria) but all I wrote down in my journal for notes was “yay tea and donuts break!!!” Next was a talk by Dr. Bhatnayar on the epidemiology of HIV/AIDS in India, which we all enjoyed. Regarding pregnancy, too: until recently, public health professionals stressed sterilization (not condoms) to prevent pregnancy; today schools preach abstinence, many people correlate condoms with HIV/AIDS, and one learns about contraception “through the internet.” When we asked the number of homosexuals living in India, Dr. Bhatnayar responded “that’s the billion dollar question.” If the stigma is so great and sex education is so rare, how can India properly address the right populations? Whereas the highest prevalence of HIV/AIDS in the U.S. is among homosexuals, the most affected (known) populations here are intravenous drug users and sex workers.
Last we heard from Dr. Manickam about traditional medicine/AYUSH and this was awesome. The global term for what he deals with is “TCAM”- traditional, complementary, alternative medicine. I love how India’s government has a Department of Health, Department of Health Research, and a Department of AYUSH, which stands for:
Yoga/naturopathy (“if Ayurveda is the science of the body, then yoga is the science of the spirit”)
Siddha (or Sowa-Rigpa, essentially Ayurveda in South India)
Ayurveda is the oldest Indian system of nature care and is based on the idea that disease occurs when the equilibrium between human beings and nature is disrupted. The Ayurveda and Siddha systems of medicine operate on the principles of holism, considering the body as a synthesis of its physical, mental and spiritual dimensions. Every person is composed of the three humors or the “tridoshas”: wind (vata), bile (pitta) and phlegm (kapha) and an imbalance of your doshas leads to illness. What really resonates with me about Ayurvedic medicine is not only its focus on prevention, but its treatment of the individual, not the sickness or symptoms. Dr. Manickam is an AYUSH physician (so cool) and talked about food as medicine, medicine as food, and the relationship between the body and nature embodying the physical, cosmic, and spiritual. Patients tend to shuffle between AYUSH and allopathic practitioners depending on a variety of factors but of course there is skepticism about the quality, effectiveness and safety of mixing of herbs and remedies in traditional practices. But look at the crazy five-in-one “poly pills” Western doctors are handing out that combine aspirin, blood-pressure and cholesterol drugs to reduce the risk of heart attack and stroke! I’m pretty skeptical about that mass-produced combination.
A few days ago we visited one of many colleges of Ayurveda in Tamil Nadu, home also to a hospital, old-age home and 5 acre herbal garden. We talked and ate lunch with a bunch of Ayurvedic doctors and heard some interesting “facts” that really solidified by fascination with traditional medicine.
Best part was when one of the doctors stood up and started rattling off dos and don’ts… here are some tips:
Sleep on your left side and live to be 100. Sleeping on your right side strains your heart.Put oil on your head for 30 minutes before every bath (normally 2-3x per week) to stay cool all day.Wash your feet, hands and mouth after going to the bathroom to improve kidney function.Keep your head away from the north side of the room to cut off the magnetic field (every bed in our house is on the south side).Use a tongue cleaner every morning to open up your taste buds for the day.Lose weight by drinking warm water with a tablespoon of honey on an empty stomach twice a day.Gain weight by replacing the water with milk.
I came home that afternoon afternoon to Darshu and Kaavya and I expressed to them how “crazy” this doctor was and how “ridiculous” some of his assertions were. I told them the statements above and instead of agreeing with their outrageousness they nodded their heads and insisted on the truth behind them all, explaining each one for me! Me and my western brain need to be more careful. On another note, one interesting recent lecture was given by the leader of an anti-trafficking initiative at MCCSS: Madras (= Chennai) Christian Council of Social Service. Sex trafficking in India is so so hard to cover in a lecture, but Isabelle still opened our eyes. Sex trafficking is the most extreme violation of human rights and is perpetuated through force, fraud, threat and coercion. These women are trafficked generally by men ages 18-27 and are exploited for photography, begging, organs, sex tourism, domestic work, or drug pedalling. Lots of factors facilitate this 3rd largest business in the world including an abusive family, government corruption (weak Child Protective services), poverty, education, unemployment, war (abandoned kids… there’s no longer a breadwinner…). It’s one huge terrifying organized crime network. Isabelle showed us an article from that day’s newspaper reporting on a monsoon outside Delhi where farmers were committing suicide. Through the eyes of a sex worker this is an opportunity (it’s like disaster capitalism; we’re reading the Shock Doctrine right now..) They will strategize and live in this vulnerable village and offer girls education and opportunity in Chennai. Then they vanish in brothels. We heard interesting stories from an Indian decoy operator who helps the police by entering brothels under the cover of a customer. We also heard from Reka, who told her story of being trapped in brothel through a love affair. Reka was a tall, slender, shy Hindi who told us how she was taken by her college boyfriend to Hyderabad where for 50,000 rupees she was sold to a brothel and spent 3 years as a drugged, abused sex worker until the police rescued her. Back in Chennai she couldn’t find her old house or family, who likely thought she was dead, and within days another traffickers approached her offering help and took her to Dubai where she endured 2 more years at a brothel until she was brought to MCCSS. Now she’s getting an education, recovering, and learning to sew. It was an incredible story and really brought the issue down to our level.
But not all our time is spent visiting NGOs, hearing guest lecturers and attending class! Last week we split into groups and embarked on a scavenger hunt around the city to San Thome (St. Thomas Basilica), Kapaleeshwar Temple in Mylapore, the Theosophical Society, post office, library and Marina Beach. We have lots of looong (too long in my opinion) discussions about community building, ways to improve this program’s structure, analyzing host family behavior, taking an insensitive number of photos (of things that shouldn’t be photographed), deconstructing race, and questioning “what IS soap? why do we need it?” in response to the lack of soap in every bathroom.
I could write forever about India and the quotidian details but I’ll save it for the emails! Hope ya’ll had a lovely Valentine’s Day—Ama, Darshu, Isabella, Kaavya and I celebrated with chocolate cake and a fancy dinner out. But we still ate with our hands…(see photo)