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

Girls, girls, girls

Checking my “Blog Stats” from the “Dashboard” of my new WordPress blog (thank you WordPress!) has become a daily habit, and could easily become an obsession. The page gives you a chart on how many viewers you’ve had over the past 30 days, where your referrals have come from in the last two days, and search engine terms used to find your blog, as well as other summary statistics on viewers (total number, best day, today, etc.).

I have been amused to see that people (I’m assuming men and boys) have been finding my blog with the following search terms over the past few days: “girls”, “rajasthan girl”, and “mumbai girls”. I can’t imagine how they are getting to my blog, and what entry they are finding. But I’m more than happy to provide them a “clean” diversion from their search for smut.

When I search for “girls” using Google, I get the expected porn sites (sexy supermodels, babes, nude girls, etc.) as well as sites for girls organizations, such as GirlsInc and Girl Scouts (go girls!) on the first page. So, I tried the same search on one of the most popular Indian search engines – Well, blow me down. Eight of the ten first page results were for blogs. (Um, yes, you guessed it, the other two are “picture” sites.) In a country where the word “woman” hasn’t entered the common lexicon, there are lots of self-described “girls” in the Indian blogosphere. Even a “mumbaigirl”!

What is going on? On further investigation – a search for “rajasthan girl” in guruji yields four matrimonial sites on page one. A deeper search (page two of “mumbai girls” in guruji) leads me to hope that Nair Menon (or his mother), SW Engineer Rajput Boy, finds the Professional Girl he is looking to marry.

What?!? Are these searchers looking for nice, homely (Indian English for “domestic” or “home-like” when referred to cooking) girls to marry? Then I take even more satisfaction in giving these boys (or their parents) a respite from their duty.

Wedding Circuit

Yesterday we received the train tickets we had reserved over the Internet for our travels for the next two weeks.  (An amazing service, this – you make your reservations on the Indian Railways website, pay by credit card, and get your tickets hand delivered two days later for a fee of a little over a dollar per ticket. Used to be less, I think…)  We don’t actually have seats on any of the trains, but are hopeful that we clear the waiting lists by the day of travel.  (Unfortunately, we can’t take advantage of the various quotas, like Foreign or Emergency, over the web, and can only do it from the departing terminals, the closest of which is three hours away.)

Here is our itinerary for those of you keeping tabs.

20 December 11:45am:  Train #6012 – Mumbai Express from Chennai Central to Pune Junction.

21 December 9:35am: Arrive Pune.

21 December 6:30pm:  Wedding reception for Jai Suri and Priya.

22 December 6:25pm: Train #2129 – Azad Hind Express from Pune Junction to Howrah (Kolkata)

24 December 4:00am:  Arrive Kolkata.

29 December 2:00pm:  Wedding reception for Nisha Vora and Indi.

29 December 8:35pm:  Train #2863 – Howrah Yesvantpur Express from Howrah to Yesvantpur.

31 December 8:10am:  Arrive Yesvantpur (Bangalore).

We’ll probably spend a few days in Bangalore before taking an overnight bus back to Pondicherry.

Do let us know if you will be in town.  We already have a date to meet with Vandana J. in Pune on the 22nd. and Bauddhayan (Buddy) Mukherji in Kolkata on the 28th.  (Of course, we’ll be spending the rest of our time in Kolkata with Rosalie Giffoniello of Empower the Children.) And, we are going to try and see the Hemas in Bangalore on the 31st before they leave for the U.S.   We’d love to see you too!

“Beautiful India”

Shuddham Cleaning Crew

THE SOLUTION lies in rediscovering harmony; reconnecting with our environment and the people around us. All urban environmental problems are caused by us. They will cease to exist once we unite in our concern and each one of us act responsibly. Shuddham

“Beautiful India” is the urban environmental and recycling movement fostered by Shuddham, the NGO above whose offices Mark and I live in Pondicherry. After three years of painstaking effort, going door-to-door in their neighborhood to educate people about the benefits of segregating garbage, continuing to work despite political corruption, and reaching out to the broader community, they now have the municipal contract to keep about a quarter of “French” Pondicherry clean.

Beautiful India Logo Shuddham Zone Crates

And clean it is! Twenty four women, wearing green vests with the “Beautiful India – together we can achieve wonders” logo on the back, patrol the streets twice a day. Once in the morning to pick up the garbage, segregated into compostable and recyclable, and again in the afternoon to do a “sweep” – picking up plastic and other garbage that has been discarded on the streets.

The women who work with Shuddham are extremely proud of the work that they do. They patrol the streets in twos and threes, placing compostable material in green crates that are then transported to the vermi-composting center, and recyclables in the red plastic bags. (Each household is given a green bucket with a lid, as well as smaller red bags labeled to show the types of materials that can be recycled.) The women whose photograph I took this morning had flowers draped on the handle bar of their tricycle and a temple bell hung off one handle which they rang to notify the households that they were there to pick up the garbage.

Three days ago, all the women were taken on a field trip to see the segregation center, where the paper, plastic, and other recyclables are further segregated (into light plastic, heavy plastic, newspaper, white paper, hazardous wastes such as batteries, etc.), the vermi-composting center, and the town dump, so that they could see the effects of their work on the one hand, and the results of unsegregated dumping, on the other.

Pondicherry Dump
Pondicherry Dump, which is near capacity.

Shuddham has perservered against all efforts to shut them down. At one point, through the interventions of a Member of Parliament (MP – the equivalent to a U.S. Representative), they were given the contract to pick up garbage in all of French Pondicherry. The local municipal politicians, Members of the Legislative Assembly (MLAs – the equivalent of U.S. city council members) tried to freeze Shuddham out by withholding payment for ten months. Most other contractors would have withheld payment to their employees until they were paid by the State. However, Shuddham begged and borrowed money to pay their employees every month. At the suggestion of some friends, they fielded their own MLA candidate, who won despite the fact that she did not spend any money on her campaign, unlike her opponents, who handed out the usual monetary “incentives” to voters. Two days before the new MLAs were to take office, the outgoing MLA revoked the Shuddham contract and gave it to another company. Again, despite the fact that they no longer had a contract and would not get paid, Shuddham continued their work because the other company was not segregating and recycling.

The new MLA was able to reinstate Shuddham, but Shuddham decided to take only a portion of French Pondicherry, and let the other company retain a larger part of the territory. Shuddham also trained representatives of the other company on their methodology. The other company now has women wearing the same green vests (but without the “Beautiful India” logo), has taken a variant on the Shuddham name, and has self-help groups going door-to-door to try and educate the households (with no monitoring so not all households segregate). And, because they don’t receive regular payment from the government, their workers are not paid for months at a time. So, despite the fact that they pay their workers more than Shuddham does, more and more of their workers approach Shuddham for jobs.

Beautiful India Teaching Aid
Training Aid

Shuddham now has a program to educate children in one school, and is working to expand their reach to more schools. They also have a number of supporters who do not live in their service area, but have taken the red bags and bring their recyclables by the office twice a month.

Mark and I are able to recycle more of our garbage in Pondicherry than we do in San Francisco!


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