I have now been in India for over a week. Since I didn't give much of an overview in my previous post I thought I would catch all of you up on what I am actually doing (especially because now I actually know what I am doing!). :) I'm working as an intern at Ankuri, an estate in the village of Thikana near Dehradun. The first few days were hectic and uncomfortable as we all tried to settle into the new way of life and as we tried to start projects that we had been hired to do. All of the interns (Luna, Amanda, and I) share many skills and are very creative, so it took us a while to realize each other's strengths and figure out how to work together.
I ended up mainly teaching the English classes at first. Though I am skilled with this, it did not relate to my main skills (design, organization, programming) and it was very stressful to be teaching 30 non-English speaking kids for 3 hours straight each day. Now all of us are sharing the teaching and are also working on other creative projects. I am programming 1 of the 2 websites that need to be made and am getting beautiful pictures from Luna and creative writing content from Amanda. Rachna is also very intrigued by my research project and we are working to find the best strategy so that my project can be fruitful and benefit Ankuri. My project is designed to see whether Ankuri is indeed making an impact on the lives, empowerment, and mental wellbeing of the women in the village.
One way I am planning on measuring these things is by doing a network analysis of the types of relationships the women have or have not developed through Ankuri. Language is always a barrier. Our plan is to translate a questionnaire to Hindi, which the women will get help with when they come into the center (not only is English a barrier, but many of them are illiterate in Hindi, too.). Luna is doing beautiful photography and is currently painting large murals of maps to put on the walls of the schoolhouse so that we can teach geography. And Amanda is creating an excel-sheet and teaching the women in the knitting center how to use it so that they can have more sustainable practices and analyze their success or failure over the years. Today we will all be traveling into the village to interview ladies on their experience at Ankuri so that we can create a book and movie!
Often when we sit at meals with Rachna they turn into 1-2 hours affairs— but for a good reason! She loves to give us lectures on the history of India, the caste system, gender issues, the importance of having a women's support system, what a healthy marriage might entail, and her family history. She is very well versed in the minute details of the long history of India and I have realized that knowing your roots is such a large part of the culture here. In America we do not recite our history and tell each other stories like this at the dinner table. I want to make it my goal to do this more often— it is the best way to really memorize something and understand it.
A few of Rachna's lessonshave stuck out to me in particular. One is that the children grow up surrounded by unspoken gender rules that create huge tension. Boys and girls learn that they should stay apart from one another and maintain control of their emotions. Because there is no discussion of these subjects, children do not learn to think why these rules might exist. Rachna started a gender studies class with some of the older children in the school (10th-12th grade). She broached questions such as "if your sibling were to marry outside of caste would you throw your brother or sister out of the family." Many of the children simply answered "yes, of course" while others began to wonder why this had to be the case. It is so important to have these conversations young so that there can be time to develop their own logic and morals. I think this can be the key to creating an open, inclusive community instead of countless fragmented families that are rife with depression and oppression. But, as always, this topic is not so simple. Rachna also made a point that these rules of marriage and propriety exist because, unlike America, many people here do not have the resources to make mistakes, learn a lesson, or alter their personal morals because they are locked into a family structure that depends heavily on each member. If you do something wrong, such as marry outside of your caste or do a job poorly, or get labeled as a "loose" girl, your community may see this as a threat to their resources and connections— you may suddenly be tossed onto the street because the next person will do better and will be more useful or not bring problems into a community that is already struggling.
On May 15, soon after this discussion with Rachna, we had the opportunity to go to the reception of a local Indian wedding. After being amidst so many of those bright colors, jewels, bangles, and staring faces caked in charcoal make-up, it feels a bit like a dream. Early on the 15th, Kajul (a very sharp girl who works every day in the knitting center and who has taught us Hindi, brought us to the bazaar, and taught us some dance moves) went to Dehradun to pick up our crop tops, which would be worn with the sarees we had picked out earlier. The previous night, Luna and I had ended up wandering through some alleyways, following the man we had bought some cloth from. He led us up the narrowest of staircases, through a cloth door that was billowing in the breeze, and into a dimly lit living room that seemed to have only a table and sewing machine as furniture. Here a seamstress measured us and promised the shirts in about 18 hours.
When Kajul returned with the crop tops, we discovered Amanda and Luna's wouldn't fit, so Kajul, Luna, and I began ripping the seams out and re-measuring. This turned out to be a great adventure because we got to go to Kajul's house and meet her family while Kajul re-sewed the seams using her own sewing machine. She is really quick witted and talented— she could do just about anything.
After this we rushed to get ready... While Rachna was helping me put my saree on the power went out, so she lit a lantern but we kept tripping over the dogs which had snuck into her room.
We arrived at the wedding in a jeep, which pulled right up to the entrance of the reception like a celebrity chauffer. The whole area was enclosed in yellow and blue cloth billowing and flittering in the gentle wind and there were hundreds of lights lighting it up (I saw several kids sneaking under the cloth when the adults weren't looking.).
The bride and groom had perhaps met before, but they were certainly unfamiliar with one another. It is tradition in Northern India that the bride and groom should show emotion or familiarity with one another during the ceremonies. The bride especially is not supposed to show any emotion (there is always this unspoken idea that marriage shouldn't imply the happiness, sex, children, and pleasure because these things show lack of control). They sat on a platform and stared at a camera blankly for the duration of the reception while people took turns taking pictures with them, like they were statues. Honestly, the bride seemed sedated and sometimes I wondered if she was completely alive. She seemed objectified with that large gold ring in her nose, red saree, cake of make-up, and blank expression.
I ended up with a posse of little girls following me— as they were the only ones brave enough to approach me. Saboo, Sona, Kissi... It is hard to remember these foreign names or the girls spoke to softly for me to hear. They kissed my cheeks over and over and I almost got pulled under at one point. As always, Kajul rescued me and we moved on.. to the dance floor. Here Kajul abandoned us to be dragged by the girls to the dance floor by a group of girls. The saree confined my feet, so I was reduced to dancing with my hands only. I copied the little girls, but Varinika, who I teach at the school, always pushed the other girls aside to show me dance moves. She needs so much attention and I'm not sure whether it is due to being spoiled or due to a lack of attention at home. One little toddler who was dressed like a valentine present grabbed my fingers and bounced along to at least 4 songs with me. This was when I realized that all the people sitting in the seating surrounding us were staring curiously— they have no shame like Americans and the people here just look if they are curious. Additionally, the guys and girls do not dance together (another form of the separation their society creates between genders), so they stared at us laughing and pointing and ascended the dance floor as soon as we got off. It is the same problem that many societies create. By keeping the women from the men there is an implication that being together is shameful, dangerous, or frivolous.
Finally, Rachna asked us only afterwards why we were being so silly and not smiling in the pictures. We thought that we weren't supposed to show our teeth or smile from a previous discussion but Rachna finally revealed to us that at this particular event it is only the bride who may not smile! Sorry for the awkward smiles, everyone.
Over and out,