Archive for December, 2006

Sacrifice (Bakr id)

December 28, 2006

The first beautiful cow arrived in the alley last night.  By this afternoon, there were two more.  Over the next three days, there will be 32 cows (last year, there were 50) and one camel (which will have traveled for 30 days, on foot, from Rajasthan), all tied up in this one alley.  The camel will be given one day to rest from its long journey, before it, the cows assembled in the alley, and the goats, which are kept in people’s houses for safe-keeping, are sacrificed.

As each animal arrives, everyone in the neighborhood gathers around to admire the animal and to talk about who will have the most animals, how much each animal cost, and how much in total each family will spend for the holiday.  (The wealthiest family in the neighborhood will spend about Rs. 150,000 – a little over U.S. $3,400.)  Those who are particularly devout will have bought animals a month earlier and kept them in the playground, painstakingly feeding and caring for them better than members of their own families.  Wealthier relatives will provide animals for family members who cannot afford them.  The camel is a joint purchase – beyond the means of just one family.

On Bakrid, the Muslims go to the mosques in the morning to offer prayers to Allah, and then sacrifice the animal at home. Bakr means ‘sheep’, and on Bakrid, the affluent sacrifice one animal per member of the family, and distribute two-thirds of the meat among the poor. A full-grown camel, cow, goat or sheep, free from any disease, is sacrificed.

Id ul Zuha, more commonly known as Bakr id, which commemorates Abraham’s sacrifice of his only son Ishmael, falls on January 1 this year.  Syed Ishmail Lane, where Rosalie Giffoniello of Empower the Children lives, is the alley where all the animals are kept and slaughtered for the Muslim population in this neighborhood – all these animals in a one-block lane about the width of a cow.

Several times a day, Rosalie will run the gauntlet of cows, quickly edging along the alley, in constant fear of being splattered with urine or dung.  (Her first year in the apartment, she was paralyzed with fear, and little children would take her hand to guide her through the alley safely to the perpendicular, cow-free lane.)  Her landlord and neighbors have advised her to move out for the three days before the festival, but she takes a perverse pleasure in successfully negotiating the alley without getting pissed or shit on.  The sense of competition, accomplishment, and immense relief compel her to continue to use the alley even though there is another, albeit out-of-the-way, egress through a charming one-and-a-half person walkway behind her apartment building.

Every year, her landlord’s family brings her a plate of three types of meat and ask:  “Did you know which one was the camel?”

I am Indian – do not try to teach me a lesson

December 24, 2006

“Indians thrive on disorder; it will take two to three generations to change their behavior.” Anil Shah

Scene: The entrance/exit/linen closet/sink/toilet area of the A1 (2nd class Air-Conditioned (AC)) bogie of the Azad Hind Express, traveling from Pune Junction to Howrah, Calcutta.

Linen Closet

Y and M, along with countless others, are traveling without a ticket. R, an engineer with the Indian Air Force, who along with three other friends, is also traveling without a ticket, helps Y and M negotiate with one of two bedding attendants in the bogie to let them have the linen closet and fold-down platform where the attendants normally sleep.

View from Linen Closet

The linen closet and fold-down platform face the two toilets on the bogie, as well as the two toilets in the 3rd class AC bogie. All evening and night, all of the next day and night, and the morning after that, Y and M watch people going to the bathroom; washing their hands, mouths, dishes, cutlery at the sink; combing their hair; spitting on the floor; and throwing trash in the small bin under the sink, out of the train doors, through the gaps in the plates connecting the bogies, and on the floor of the train.

Sign in Toilet

Y is incredulous at the number of people, including one of the conductors, who go to the bathroom while the train is stopped at a station. Y notices that sometimes, people who are not riding the train will board at a station to use the toilet.

Garbage Disposal on the Azad Hind Express

M is the first one to notice that the caterers throw all the paper, plastic, and aluminum from the breakfasts, lunches and dinners that they serve through the gap between the bogies, onto the train tracks.

M and Y stop several people from throwing garbage onto the tracks, but are not able to stop most of the others, whose action is practiced and very fast – a flick of the wrist.

There is one man, A, who is particularly objectionable because he is pointedly callous – smoking right in front of us, flicking lit cigarette butts out the train door, and leaving the toilet door and train door (which he opens when he smokes) open because M asked him the first time he came out to smoke to smoke in the next bogie.

With six hours left in the journey, the train four hours late, A, who seems to be getting more and more belligerent, urinates without entering the toilet, with most of his body in the hallway, right in front of Y and M. The ultimate insult? Show of disdain? A does not flush (has never flushed), or shut the door. He zips up in full view of Y.

M: “Excuse me, can you shut the toilet door?”

A sets his face and ignores M. Another man enters the toilet and latches the door from the inside. A is blocking M’s view, so M does not see the other man enter the toilet.

M: “Shut the door!”

A: “There is someone in there!”

M: “You have never once shut the door after going to the toilet!”

A: “You are traveling unauthorized. Did you know that?”

M: “I know now.” “So sue me.”

A: “Why would I want to do that?” “You are my guest.”

M: “I am not your guest.”

A: “You are my guest. You are a foreigner; I am an Indian. You are my guest.”

M: “Do you know that smoking is not allowed on the train?”

A: “You cannot fine me.”

M: “I just wanted to make sure we both knew that you were doing something unauthorized.”

A: You are traveling unauthorized. I could throw you off this train.”

M: “I’d like to see that.”

A: “You are a foreigner. I am Indian – do not try to teach me a lesson.”

Revised Itinerary

In my previous post, “Wedding Circuit“, I mentioned that Mark and I would be traveling from Calcutta to Bangalore the evening of December 29th. Well, with us, all plans are made to be broken.

The day before we departed for Pune, Puru Kothari (who had just returned from vacation) mentioned that he was going to Alang, the famous ship-breaking port on the western coast of Gujarat. When our eyes lit up in recognition (we had just seen a documentary on Alang focused on the environmental pollution and inhumane working conditions there just before we arrived in India), he invited us to join him. After some frantic “figuring”, we decided to take the Calcutta-Ahmedabad train (instead of going to Bangalore) to meet up with the team driving up from Pondicherry starting December 30 in Surat.

Mark spent four hours this morning (visiting 7 different offices) applying for emergency quota (we are still waitlisted for this train too) so that we don’t have to stow away again.

Praroyna School, Ultadanga, Kolkata

December 26, 2006

The taxi makes a left turn onto a lane, a right into an alley, has to wait for a van coming in the opposite direction to cross a one-car-wide bridge, edges down a dirt path, and then cuts diagonally across a field before stopping at the one-room Praroyna School in Ultadanga, Kolkata. We walk in to cries of “Happy Christmas Auntie!” from the thirty students and five new enrollees from Beleghata slum who range in age from four to fourteen.

Mark and I and Carol, a volunteer from France, accompany Rosalie Giffoniello, the co-founder and director of Empower the Children, for the Christmas party for the students of Praroyna School. “Indians are holiday obsessed, but we only give these students two parties a year – one for Durga Puja and one for Christmas,” explains Rosalie, as we carry in the Christmas tree and her Christmas box full of props for her lesson – even though this is a party, it starts with a lesson.

And this lesson is no different from any other lesson Rosalie teaches – it starts with a story. Rina Das, the Director of the school, translates into Bengali Rosalie’s English extrapolation of a Dutch pop-up book about a little goat whose Christmas wish is to pull Santa’s sleigh. The children let out an exclamation of wonder as the first page pops up. Rosalie stops after each page of the story so that she and one of the two full-time teachers with a second copy of the book show every child each pop-up picture as Rina questions the children on the story. After the story, Rosalie takes out a plush bear in a red cap that each child gets an opportunity to hug. Next, a smaller Santa bear in a sleigh is passed around. Then, Rosalie asks me to make sure every child gets to hear the “singing” snowman, whose song unfortunately ends in “…dashing through the snow.” The malfunction is a bit jarring for me, but of course, the kids don’t understand or care.

Rina and Rosalie with the children of Praroyna School

Then it is time for the drama. A little boy is selected to wear a Santa costume, others are his “helpers,” with the appropriate masks, while still others are reindeer, with antler headbands. The rest of the children are the audience, and they get to wear felt hats with pompoms. Because the classroom is too small for the enactment, we take the students outside into the field. All the other children who have been looking in through the window and door become audience members. Santa, his helpers, and reindeer fly to America to pick up the presents, but not before being fed by Mrs. Claus. Before the presents are distributed, each child is given a Christmas card and share the 12 scissors available in the school to cut out the pictures to make ornaments for the tree. The cutouts are hole-punched and tied to the tree with string. Carol hands out a toothbrush and pencil, taped and tied together with ribbon (for the more significant holiday of Durga Puja, each child gets a made-to-order set of clothes) before we take our leave and the teachers and students continue the party with cake, candy and other little gifts.

Praroyna School is one of more than a dozen programs that Empower the Children operates each year on a total budget of U.S. $25,000. (Praroyna School runs on an annual budget of U.S. $4,000.) Rosalie strives to make sure that each of her educational programs fosters free expression and independent thinking and does not mimic the standard government education by rote memorization. After the standard educational curriculum in the mornings (to prepare the children to sit for the Board examinations), and a nutritious mid-day meal (which includes fruit), the children at Praroyna are instructed in the creative arts – music, art, and drama – in the afternoons.

Rosalie, despite a soft heart that can never say “no”, is an exacting taskmaster and teacher. But her fiscal and educational rigor is tempered by the love that she has for each and every child in her programs. And she has been able to attract educators who are equally passionate about the children they serve. Rina Das, the director of Praroyna School, loves each child in the school as she loves her only son. For every success, such as the five new enrollments today, she has failures, such as the eight year old girl (pictured below) who was pulled out of school (which she attended every day with her younger sister) to take over the household duties for her mother, who survived having her sari set on fire (presumably by her husband). But she continues to scour the Beleghata slums to plead with parents to let their children come to school.

Running the household at age eight

Taking a Bath

December 22, 2006  – Pune, Indiabath1.JPG




Jai and Priya (or, All in the CharityFocus Family)

Jai and Priya
The happy couple

Mark and I attended the wedding reception of Jai Suri (as I know him, CharityFocus volunteer and former ProPoor Tech volunteer) and Priya (soon to be CharityFocus volunteer!) yesterday evening at Hotel Kalasagar in Pune.


Anita and her Dad
Anita and her dad

It was wonderful to see Jai’s brother Satya and sister-in-law Anita (both CharityFocus volunteers) and to get to spend time with Vandana (CharityFocus India Volunteer Coordinator and ProPoor team member), her husband Joseph, and daughter Keya (youngest CharityFocus volunteer when she started working on website projects in 2002).

Joseph Family
Vandana, Keya and Joseph

Congratulations Jai and Priya. I’ll be contacting you once Jai finishes his MBA in May and you and Priya get settled in Los Angeles. Priya – welcome to the CharityFocus family!

Street Businesses, Pune

Non-food businesses along a half-block pathway (sidewalk) near the Pune Junction railway station.

Cut and Shave
Haircut and shave 

Shoe Shine
Shoe shine

Tire Repair
Bicycle tube repair

Shoe Repair
Shoe repair

Weigh Scale
Weigh scale

Ice Delivery
Ice delivery


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