Tuesday, August 4, 2015

Finding Jhuma (Part One)

The sound of a pressure cooker hisses me awake. I reach for my iPhone to check for messages from the other side of the world and blink as I flip through Instagram while my brain catches up to my awakening body. It's 7:10am and Jhuma is already cooking the day's meal in the kitchen next to my bedroom. I roll out of bed, turn off the AC and step out of my bedroom into the steaming living room. No one else is awake except for Jhuma. 

I slide open the pocket door and peek into the kitchen. There she is, red sindoor and red tikuli. Sweat dripping down her temples as two pots boil on the stove. She is sitting cross-legged on the floor and she carefully pushes small onions into the boti, which is propped up against the cabinet. They slice evenly. "Good Morning, Jhuma," I say. "Good Morning, Kristen," she replies in almost a whisper with her shy smile, the warmth of which makes my mercury center expand. It is the first time she has ever addressed me by name.

The previous day was challenging and stunning. In the morning Jhuma and I walked Kumkum and Lalita to school. When I walk with the girls to school they each hold one of my hands and we take up pretty much the entirety of whatever narrow lane or alley down which we walk. Kumkum usually chirps in Bengali and flaps her other arm around, laughing wildly at almost nothing. Lalita grips my other hand and propels us forward with her will to arrive to school on time. "Pisimoni, time?" she questions me with a serious look. "Time: 10:22," I answer. "Oh. Okay. Challo." 

After dropping Lalita at school and waving from the street for a full five minutes, we continue on to Kumkum's school. Jhuma leads the way, making sure we don't get hit by tuk-tuks or yellow Ambassador taxis as they fly through the puddles and nearly spray us. We drop Kumkum to her classroom and turn to begin the walk home. 

I've never been able to fully communicate to Jhuma. I can tell her short phrases in Bengali and compliment her cooking, but that's the extent of my Bengali and her English basically ceases at, "school" and "chicken". 

During our walk home we fall into the comfortable silence that we've become accustomed to. It's obvious that we desperately want to have a real conversation, but even when we try we usually end up just staring at each other and scrunching up our faces and saying, "Sorry..." for not being able to come up with the right words in each others' languages. 

I spend 10 minutes trying to ask her who her friends are in the neighborhood. I can't tell if her blank stare back at me is because she doesn't understand or because she doesn't have any. I think it might be both. 

Later that night we are bankside. Nirmal is at his post, ready to open the gate for any cars pulling in or out. Jhuma is making chappatis and the girls are penciling answers into their school workbooks. I sit cross-legged on the wooden platform that is the centerpiece of their lives bankside. It's the most multifunctional hunk of wood I've ever seen. Bed, dining room table, ironing board, couch, coffee table, kitchen counter. This 4 foot by 7 foot platform does it all. 

I look at Jhuma and she's wiping sweat from her brow with the edge of her sari. "Do you need any help with dinner?" I ask. She stares at me and cocks her head. I say, "Um.. chapati? Me?"  She grabs one of the already puffed chapatis and hands it to me, misinterpreting my question. I shake my head. "No, no... do you need help?" I point at the rolling pin. She looks at Nirmal for help. 

I say to Nirmal, "Does Jhuma need help getting dinner ready?" "Dinner..." he says, nodding. "Does she need help?" I ask again. He nods. "Help," I say. "Can I do something? Cut vegetables?" "Yes, veg," he says, referring to what we're going to eat for dinner. 

I put my head into knees that are already drawn up against my chest. My center tightens with exasperation and sadness. I pick my head up and say to Nirmal in English, "I want to be able to talk to Jhuma. I want to talk to my friend. I need to learn more Bengali." Nirmal looks at me with question marks in his eyes and says cautiously, "Bengali, yes." I say, "Yes. Amar bandhu Jhuma." My eyes fill up with tears and suddenly there's a 5 rupee coin in my throat and it's getting bigger. 

"Handwash, Kristen," instructs Nirmal, "No lanka in eyes!" I say, "No lanka! No lanka!" I shake my head to deny that I touched a green chili and then touched my eyes. I let him realize that my tears are not capsaicin induced. "I want to be able to speak to Jhuma! She's my friend and I can't talk to her. I can't tell her how much I appreciate the food that she makes me. I can't tell her how thankful I am that she allows me to be in the girls' lives. I can't tell her how much it means to me that she remembers from last year how I like toast with butter in the morning and that she quietly admires her braid in the mirror when I give her one on Sundays. I want to tell her how much she means to me and I can't!" I say these things quickly and in English, with tears spilling down my cheeks. 

The girls watch with curiosity and apprehension. They've never seen their Pisimoni cry about anything except for leaving for the airport the year before. This is different and they know it. Kumkum is stunned into silence for probably the first time in her life. Her eyes are upon me with an intensity she saves for particularly confusing moments. Lalita quickly goes to work on something with a set of colored pencils.

"Ohhhh Krreestuhhhhn. Okay.... Okay, okay," Nirmal comes over and sits next to me. I try to talk more slowly and use all of the Bengali words I know. He still doesn't know why I'm crying. I frantically try to look up the words for "need" and "help" to try to explain that all I wanted to ask was if Jhuma needed help making dinner, but that now my tears are entirely unrelated to dinner. 

Jhuma is squatting over the wooden roti board. Her rolling pin dangles from one hand over a half-rolled chapati. She stares at me, her expression a mixture of astonishment and worry. Her forehead is wrinkled and she periodically looks at Nirmal and says, "Ki?" He dismisses her with his hand and tries his best to understand me as I frantically gesture towards Jhuma and try to explain my feelings.  

"Okay. Okay I am solve problem," says Nirmal. "I call one bank lady. She can help. Tikachhe?" I respond, "Tikachhe. Tike, Tike." I wipe the tears from my cheeks and Lalita slides across the platform on her knees and silently hands me a picture of a 2x2 grid with four items inside: a mango, a house, a fish and a candle. Above the fish she's written, "Kirsten no cairay you butfoul and Lalite Roy Pashemoni". Kumkum stands from where she is perched on the wooden platform and crawls into my lap with her identical picture, forgetting to hand it to me. Instead she puts her palm on my cheek and locks eyes with me. She cocks her head and furrows her brow, and I tell her with my wet eyes and half smile that everything will be okay. 

"Hello? Hello?" Nirmal is on the phone with a coworker who will translate for us. Up until now we have never been in such dire need of a translator. He hands the phone to me and I tell the woman on the other end everything that I'm trying to convey to Nirmal. That I'm sad and frustrated because Jhuma is my friend and I can't communicate with her. That I wish I knew more Bengali. That I want to tell Jhuma that now that all of the students are gone, she's my best friend in Calcutta. That all I wanted to do was ask if she needed help preparing dinner, even though I know she'd say no.

The bank employee dutifully translates all of this into Bengali for Nirmal. His expression softens as he listens. He thanks her and hangs up. Then, he looks at Jhuma and begins to explain in Bengali. When she understands, her expression shifts to surprise. She speaks to Nirmal in Bengali and he laughs. "Problem same to same," he says. "You very good friend Jhuma. When Kristen is around all time, Jhuma is happy. When Kristen is America side, Jhuma no happy. But Jhuma no English." 

I look at Jhuma. She is one year younger than me, born in 1988, and has been married for 12 years. She is beautifully raising a 9 and a 7 year, knows how to wash any type of clothing so that stains will come out, can make chapati with her eyes closed, has the eyesight to spot a congee from 10 feet away and can haggle at the market better than anyone I've ever seen. And for the first time, it dawns on me that we have so much more in common than I ever dreamed we could. We both recognize that we are friends, and we are both frustrated that we cannot communicate more easily. 

The next morning, after Jhuma has addressed me by name and I'm sitting on the couch wiping sleep from my eyes, she glides quietly into the living room with an orange mug of Nescafe. She's added my own milk from the fridge and three teaspoons of sugar, exactly the way she's watched me make it for weeks. It's the first time she's ever made it for me herself. She sets the mug in front of me and quietly says, "coffee." The tiniest, proudest smile crosses her lips and I know that she hasn't prepared the coffee for me as a domestic worker. She's prepared it for me as a friend. 


Part Two is in progress...

sindoor = the red powder applied to the front of the part of a married woman to signify her married status
tikuli = bindi, the red dot applied to a woman's forhead
chama = the top portion of a sari
boti = a stationary cutting instrument used by women in India
challo = Let's go
chapati = A type of flat, wheat bread
Amar bandhu = My friend
lanka = chili pepper
Ki? = What?
roti = bread
Tikacche? = Okay?
congee = lice/bug

Wednesday, July 15, 2015

I am.

I am standing in the rain, waving to Lalita who is sticking her head between the bars of the second story window of her school and smiling her no-front-teeth grin. I've walked what feels like a mile at 10am with Juma and Kumkum to drop her off at school. Water soaks my hair and my kurti from the late morning monsoon downpour, but I smile and wave furiously at the tiny face who is proudly pointing us out to all of her grade school bandhus

I am breathing in clouds. We are in Darjeeling, at 8,600 feet at the base of the Himalayas. I'm wearing jeans and a rain jacket and haven't produced a drop of sweat in 48 hours. The cloud air fills my lungs and cleanses them. Later in my room I cough up black mucus that has settled in my chest from two months of breathing in exhaust, dirt and dust in Calcutta.  
I am sitting cross-legged on the wooden platform in the car park underneath of the apartment building where Nirmal works as a night guard. Juma is rolling out chapatis and I am braiding Kumkum's hair. After I part her hair, I notice that the day's earlier lice treatment has worked. I pick out the dead congee with a fine tooth comb and Kumkum whines that it's taking too long for me to do her hair and too long for dinner to be ready. Juma and I exchange a smile, because nine year olds are nine year olds, no matter where you go. I stop counting the dead lice when I get to 100. 

I am gripping the handle on the inside of a jeep as we hurtle down a busted road past towns with names like Ghum and Kurseong and Pankhabari. The monsoon rains caused landslides just days before that have washed out roads that result in major traffic jams. There is no guardrail to our right and although our driver seems confident that he will deliver us safely to the airport, I take out my phone and compose a love letter to my mom and sister, just in case we careen off the side of the mountain like the beloved principal, his cook, and her five year old daughter did just four days before. 

I am eating tiffin at the dining room table and for the first time ever, Juma sits down next to me. Every single other day, Juma cooks the food, puts it on the table in serving bowls, covers them and then leaves or sits on the floor in the living room. But today she sits next to me. I watch her watch me eat, and she carefully inspects my face for a reaction. I tell her the few sentences I know that could apply to cooking: "Khubhalo! Ami Juma Food bhalo lagey" (Very good! I like Juma Food). She smiles but doesn't speak. I can tell she wants to say something. She keeps opening her mouth slightly, with a look on her face like she is searching for the right words in her limited English vocabulary. I wish she would tell me everything she's thinking in Bengali, even if I can't understand it. The silence in which we sit becomes comfortable and we watch each other. Ami Juma bhalobashi

I am sitting in the backseat of a taxi, with Lalita on my lap and Kumkum between myself and Juma.  We've just dropped off Kate and Audrey at the airport and Nirmal in front is lamenting the fact that I only have 9 more days in India. Kumkum lays her (now lice-free) head on my chest and sighs, "Pisīmonī..." We get to a red light and the bādām man comes to the window. We buy five bags and Lalita gleefully dispenses one to each family member.

I am watching Lalita hand out small bowls of payesh to her family and three pisīmonīs on the morning of her birthday. A sweet, simple celebration of her 7 years on earth.  

I am standing on the metro and the entire car is staring at me. I wear appropriate leggings to my ankles and a plain green kurti that covers everything. My sports bra straps aren't showing and my hair is in a simple braid, no design. Yet, everyone stares. I wonder what they're thinking. I wonder, "Should I have put on coverup today?" "Are the slits in my kurti too high?" "Is my backpack taking up a not appropriate amount of space?" "The staring has to mean something, they can't just be that curious about me. What am I doing wrong?" I make eye contact with some of them. Some of them smile and wave their head to the side. Some just stare back. I put in my head phones and close my eyes and try to be invisible. 

I am watching Juma eat my mashed potatoes with a fork and a smile. She takes seconds and then eats the leftovers from Lalita's plate and my heart explodes because she likes it. Juma likes something that I cooked. Even if she does have to add a pile of salt to her plate and one green lankā. ;-)

I am at Durbar for a meeting with three other people working on the Drishti project. They are speaking in Bengali and I am picking up every 4th word or so, which is enough to provide context clues so that I can figure out what is happening. When my friend translates for me, I smile at my knowledge and ability to somewhat understand the loveliest language I've ever heard. 

I am watching Nirmal watch a video on my phone. It's Lalita and her three pisīmonīs at Banana Leaf earlier that day, singing her Happy Birthday while she smiles into her ice cream. Nirmal is watching, "Dēhkhā!" and crying and wiping his face with a rag. 

I am standing in my bedroom while Juma wraps me in a sari. It fits me perfectly because Nirmal has taken my measurements under the guise of me trying on one of Juma's saris, and then he disappeared for an hour and a half. He returned with the most gorgeous patterned sari, with petticoat and chama. I've never owned a sari and had no reason to before now, but I am so thankful for this gift and even more thankful at having the experience of Juma dressing me in it, fixing each part perfectly, safety pins between her lips and her daughters on the floor, inspecting the length to make sure that the sari isn't too long. 

bandhus = friends
congee = lice/bugs
tiffin = lunch
pisimoni = Auntie
badam = peanut
payesh = a type of sweet Bengali dessert made of rice, milk sugar and pistachios
lanka = chili pepper
chama = the top portion of a sari that looks like a crop top
dehkha! = look!

Saturday, July 4, 2015

Well Sunshine, She Came Out Today

I woke up this morning to the sun shining brightly instead of the usual monsoon mist that's been greeting me upon waking on most days. It made me smile and I immediately opened all of the curtains in my bedroom. It's going to be a good day. 

Tomorrow I'm going to cook Sunday meal for Nirmal and Juma and the girls. Usually both Juma and Nirmal spend hours on Sundays to prepare a huge meal for everyone. But tomorrow I'm going to attempt to make Fried Chicken, Mashed Potatoes and Sauteed Carrots. I think I'll make Masala Fried Chicken by adding some garam masala into the flour mixture for the fried chicken. We'll see how this goes since there is no all-purpose flour nor buttermilk in India. I did some research and I think I can use maida or atta flour. I also found a way to make my own buttermilk...but with buffalo milk? We'll see!

It's been an eventful few weeks. Rajasthan and the Taj Mahal were beautiful. We stayed in an absolutely lovely hotel where I became well acquainted with the bed in our room. We arrived on a Friday and I woke on Saturday morning with a terrible headache and then realized I wasn't just hot from the desert heat...I had a high fever. Lucky for me, I had some pretty amazing people taking care of me. They had the hotel call a doctor, gave me fever reducers and cold washcloths for my head and wrists, and forced me to drink water by waking me every once in awhile. 

Eventually once I was feeling better, I was stuck drinking yucky electrolyte solution instead of the Kingfishers that everyone else could have:

Perhaps this is a good time to point out the obvious in this photo - I got my nose pierced! Surprise! More on that in a bit.

Here are some photos from our hotel in Rajasthan:

Rajasthan and Jaipur were gorgeous. We visited Amer Fort, a fort built in the early 1500s. I think this was one of my favorite days in India thus far. I was finally feeling better from my sickness, the sun was shining, and I was exploring with really fun people. 

Amer Fort, Jaipur

Spices at New Market in Jaipur

Me and a goat friend.

Ellie walking down the street.

And finally, the Taj Mahal. I was so, so sick this day. I was throwing up all over the place. You can even see the ziploc bag in this photo that I'd been carrying around. Also note that Kelly (to my right) is clearly propping me up in this photo. 

I'm really lucky to have everyone on this trip, but on the day that we went to the Taj Mahal I was very, very lucky to have Kelly by my side. When everyone went inside of the Taj, she sat on the benches outside with me. Indian tourists were stopping in front of me and taking photos of me while I was wretching into that ziploc bag. As if it isn't awkward enough when people try to take photos without asking first... but being so sick and having entire families attempt to pose near me while I'm throwing up was so unsettling and weird. Luckily Kelly was on top of it and she stood guard in front of me while I puked so that people couldn't photograph me. She also chased away a few families. ;)

I was also just really thankful to have someone sitting next to me as I slowly made my way back to the entrance of the grounds to meet the rest of the group. I had to stop and sit and puke every so often, but we made it. Thanks for that, Kelly. xo

Since Rajasthan, we've been finishing up work on the students' projects at Durbar and saying goodbye to people as they head back to the US. 

Here's some more photos...

A few weeks ago we visited the Howrah Bridge and the Mullick Ghat Flower Market. It was hectic and crazy and beautiful. 

Oh! The nose piercing! So one morning I was upstairs with the girls. Eventually once she was done in the kitchen, Juma came up and joined us. I'd been trying to ask the girls who had pierced their noses. If it was Ma or at a shop. They translated to Juma what they thought I'd been saying and then all of the sudden Juma was coming at me with a safety pin that had a string tied to it! Luckily I dodged the pin, but it did get me thinking about how I've only ever had my ears pierced, no tattoos, etc. 

So I planned to do it. And 3 others did too!

We went a few nights before we left for Rajasthan. The girls and Nirmal joined us. Thank goodness, because I needed someone to hold my hand ;)

The girls were pretty pumped to go on an adventure with us.

Lalita held my purse AND my hand. I volunteered to go first which reminded me of this time that I was white water rafting in Idaho with my cousin and his wife and my mom and sister. We came to a bridge and everyone was given the opportunity to jump off of it. I went first, into the iciest, chilliest water I've ever felt in my life. I knew that if I didn't go first, I wouldn't go at all!

"Ouch" is an understatement. Also, check out Nirmal's hand gripping mine. So sweet. 

And then it was done. The ring in this photo isn't the one I have now...it was just a placeholder and the one that they use to do the actual piercing. After 3 days we went back and had our tiny diamonds switched in. 


Tuesday, June 23, 2015

Sick Things

Cold air from the air conditioning vent blows back the tiny hairs around my forehead. We've been in the car for nearly two hours and it is only 7:30 in the morning. I have spent every moment of the ride thus far in the fetal position in my seat, head bent towards the black trash bag that Kate took from our hotel room trash can. We are going to the Taj Mahal. 

The churning in my stomach occurs at the speed of the car wheels. The bile inside cyclones at forty kilometers per hour. I close my eyes and wish for expulsion, but it doesn't come. We continue down the mostly empty road, weaving in and out of colorful trucks carrying oil, chickens, and people. Some of them hang onto the sides of truck beds where ever they can find a hand-spot. 

We enter a small town and sail through. Men groggy with sleep in their faces sit on plastic stools and stare at our car passing by. Stare at the women inside. Us. They smile. Point. Wave. I close my eyes and time my breaths with the clicking of the air conditioner. Click click click. Breathe In. Click click click. Breathe out. 

The car slows as we approach a small traffic jam. The driver maneuvers around road bikes and auto-rickshaws. Our windows are up. The cold air blows. We stare at the people staring at us. We stare at the people staring at someone else. 

On the ground, a motorbike is on its side. A crowd of men standing in a semi-circle. Staring. We stare. 

A woman sits motionless in the street, legs straight, staring at the hazy air in front of her. Her salwar kameez is pushed up around her waist. One foot has a flip flop on it. The other foot is mangled, bloody. Slick and pink like raw chicken. A young girl stands behind her. She wears a red shirt with Tweety Bird on it. Her mouth is open so wide that I can see the back of her throat as she screams. Her hands are clenched, both arms stretched at forty-five degree angles from her stiff body. 

Click, click, click. She breathes in. Click, click, click. Her breath out is shrill. Her brown saucer eyes stare at the shredded foot. She still has a tiny bit of baby chub in her cheeks and her black hair is held back by a headband. The sound of her scream cuts through the glass of our car windows and joins the churning bile in my stomach like creamer poured into just-stirred coffee. 

Our axles keep spinning. All of the questions that will never be answered radiate through my limbs, the question marks popping out of my pores. I know that I will never see the shredded foot woman or the screaming child again. I put my head back into the black trash bag but nothing happens.

Hours later we are at the Taj Mahal. A palace built by an obsessed man. It is with this man-made world wonder in my periphery that I am sitting on a ledge, the roiling bile finally close to evacuation. People stare. Sweat rolls over my eyelids and down my nose onto the ground. I stare as each drop hits the same spot repeatedly.

I close my eyes. 

And it is the not image of the slick, raw chicken foot that makes me finally vomit, but the terrified little girl standing. Tweety Bird. Saucer eyes and 22 teeth. I wretch over and over into a ziploc bag. Bright yellow bile and a scared child's howl.

Thursday, June 18, 2015

The Durbar Projects

This year there are four research groups working with various populations at Durbar. The research teams/topics this year are really exciting to me. 

One group is working with Komal Ghandar, the cultural wing of Durbar that includes a dance troop. Some of the members are also members of Amra Pradatik (We Are the Foot Soldiers) which is the group for children of sex workers. Others are also part of Anandam, the LGBT group for sex workers or children or sex workers. The Komal Ghandar group is interested in exploring what it means to be members of a dance troop that travels, performs, and enters competitions with others groups who are not children of sex workers. They're also interested in exploring how being a part of the actual group and having an extra group identity (aside from being children of sex workers) benefits them mentally and emotionally. 

Another group is working with Anandam, the LGBTKH group within Durbar. Anandam has been working to repeal Indian Code 377, the law that makes homosexuality illegal in India. This group is interested in how a political revolution is possible through first creating a social revolution. Keep in mind though, that while homosexuality in India is highly stigmatized, so is sex work. So that double stigmatization really creates a roadblock for Anandam, and more importantly, can create incredibly unsafe spaces for them. 

The third group is researching the networking opportunities between Durbar and other collectives that work with marginalized populations in Calcutta. For example, today they attended the elections for Disha (Hindi meaning = "direction"), which is a collective of domestic workers who are fighting for more rights and protection for women who work in that profession. Currently, there are no laws that protect domestic workers. They cannot join labor unions and typically they work 7 days a week, 52 weeks a year. No holidays, no time off, very low pay, etc. This group is also looking at the collaboration between Durbar and other collectives in the area. 

The fourth group is examining the family dynamics within sex worker families, mainly those that have babus involved. Babus are fixed customers for sex workers. Typically men, these customers sometimes have families of their own but they have one sex worker that they visit daily. Sometimes they pay her, or sometimes they negotiate other forms of payment, such as the babu acting as a father figure for the sex worker's children for social reasons and in order to get them into a school. If the babu acts as a husband to the sex worker outside of the red light district, she could have access to many more opportunities and services for her and her family. This group will also explore the relationships between sex workers and their babus and the possible interpersonal violence that takes place within those relationships. 

All groups will present their findings to Durbar in the form of research papers and also to the Penn community in the form of short presentations. I can't wait to see how it all plays out for them. :)

Thursday, June 11, 2015

Adventures in Bariupur

Wow. I have never in my life experienced anything like the 36-ish hours I spent in Bariupur, West Bengal for a conference of the All India Network of Sex Workers (AINSW). In attendance were sex workers from all over India. Many of them were presidents or heads of their organizations or collectives. 

I should back up and first explain how the day started... the morning that we left for Bariupur. It was only me and three other students, who form the research team that is looking at policy surrounding LGBTKH rights in India and the efforts of the Durbar-affiliated group Anandam to repeal Penal Code 377 (the law that makes homosexuality in India illegal...punishable by a minimum 5 years in jail or a maximum of life in prison...).

After not getting much sleep the night before, we all woke at 7am. The plan was to meet Pintu, our coordinator and translator, at the Kavi Nazrul metro station, which is about 6 stops south of our place. From there, we would travel to Bariupur, about an hour away from South Calcutta. 

We took the metro to Kavi Nazrul, all along figuring that Pintu had arranged for a car or taxi to pick us all up. Why I still expect these things, I have no idea. 

Because what really happened is that we stepped out of the metro station into a suburb of Calcutta and walked a ways until we found a tuktuk (3 wheeled auto) that would take the FIVE of us. FIVE.

First of all, tuk-tuks fitting 3 people and a driver is a bit of a squeeze. Most ideal would be two people in the back and no one up front with the driver, because the seat is so small and the steering wheel is directly in the center. So in this tuktuk it ended up being the 3 girls (me, Kelly, Kendra) in the back and Sam and Pintu up front with the driver. With all of our backpacks packed for the night. We were crammed so tightly into this tuktuk...I asked Pintu how long of a ride and he said 30 minutes. Great. 

We were also told that there would be no access to filtered water in Bariupur, so we had to bring lots of big liter bottles for ourselves. So those were all also crammed into the tuktuk, with our backpacks. 

After a 30 minute ride in that tuktuk, we got dropped off. Only to get on another tuktuk. For another 30 minutes. I think I may have blacked out most of the second ride because I was so tired, so hot, and so sweaty. 

When we finally reached our destination the tuk tuk just pulled over in the middle of nowhere. We were surrounded by farms and cattle. I had my photo taken in front of the sign for the Children's Home (where the conference was being held) but couldn't even manage to smile after such a commute. 

In this photo you can see over my shoulders a dirt path. We walked that dirt path all the way to the entrance to the grounds of the DMSC Children's Home (this is the home/school where the sex worker's children can attend). 

When we got there, we were given the morning breakfast that everyone else had already eaten. Rice puffs, luchi (sort of like a fried dough/bread) and aloo (potato) with gravy/sauce.

After some food and some rest we joined the conference. There were about 50 women in a room, discussing strategies in order to increase funding for their HIV programming. Apparently the government of India claims that HIV will be entirely eradicated by 2017, and so funding for HIV programs will be cut at that time. The women were discussing Facebook and twitter use in order to get the word out and raise funds. 

Later in the day we were told to go rest. While we were in our room (they were so kind to give the four of us a room with two double beds. I know that people slept on the floor in order for us to have beds.) we took a rest and then TJ showed up! We'd all been laying on our beds, in various states of undress due to the heat, when he walked in with his documentary camera (not shooting...haha) and say, "Hi!" Then we chatted with him for awhile about politics and he taught us out to play Euchre. 

After that Pintu told us that we could take a walk around the property. There were lovely lakes that we could see. He said the scenery would be very beautiful. So we took that opportunity to go for a walk.

On the way we met the cutest goats.

This little guy was very interested in my camera:

We continued down the path until we eventually came across the beautiful lakes. Pintu was right. It was a stunning sight. 

It was so relaxing to sit in silence. We realized that for the first time in weeks, there were no honking horns to be heard. All we could hear were birds chirping. The silence was much appreciated, and we sat for a long time, quietly chatting. 

After that we went back to our room to relax. It was SO HOT. The heat index was near 120 and there was no luxury of air conditioning. We were sitting on the floor, the coolest place in the room, when a most terrible thing happened. 

The power went out. Completely.

That meant that the lights and overhead fans went off immediately. And there we sat, in a room, with the stillest, hottest air that you could ever imagine. 

We ended up stripping down to the most we could bear (bare? hehe). I had to remove my leggings and kurti because I just didn't think I would make it otherwise. So there we sat, in our underwear, trying to pretend we were all just in bikinis. 

Each minute felt like 30. Sweat didn't drip. It just pooled on our bodies. I was laying on the floor and my entire stomach and chest looked like I'd just stepped out of the shower. 

It was the hottest I'd ever been in my entire life. We barely even spoke. We all just lay there on the floor. Trying to sip water. Trying to be still. 

Eventually, a generator was connected and the lights came back on, though the fans only worked at half speed. We were brought a snack of rice puffs, tomato and cucumber. 

And then Pintu came to the room to tell me that there would be a small party downstairs with the women before dinner. At this point it was probably about 8pm. He used the phrase "drinky drink"...haha. 

And so when it was time, we went downstairs. We were served thin plastic cups of vodka (the brand was called "White Mischief...") mixed with water and salted ice cubes. The women really wanted us to drink up! And so began the party. 

This is us with our White Mischief drinks and Pintu, the best coordinator and translator ever. Also, this is what my hair looks like after I have experienced mild heat exhaustion and produced two liters of sweat. 

Then the women put on music and the dancing began! During the middle of this, the power went out again. Which was quite an excitement for all of us who were tipsy from the White Mischief and the heat. 

Sam continued to dance despite the power issue. His headlamp was all that was needed. ;-)

Once the power returned, the dancing began again. 

If you had told me two years ago that one day in my life, I would be drinking and dancing with a group of sex workers at a conference in India, I would have laughed. But that night, with lots of dancing, lots of drinking, and lots of hugging, it felt like the most normal night of my life. Despite the women wanting to take 5 billion photos of us and with us, it felt like a normal night with friends...friends who speak a different language. Smiles go a long way when you don't share language. 

We finally ate dinner of rice, dahl (lentil soup) and boiled egg that night at 11pm. During dinner one of the sex workers came over to me, Kelly and Kendra and told us, "My father only has 1 daughter. That's me. But now, he has 4 daughters." And she pointed at the three of us. 

After that we all went up to the roof and fell asleep on the concrete for some time while each of us took a turn taking a cold shower before bed. 

That night I barely slept. The mattress absorbed every degree of my body heat, making it feel as though I was laying on a heating pad. Tossing and turning wasn't an option, as it produced more sweat. So I lay next to Kelly, both of us as far away from each other as possible in order to not share body heat, both of us still. I was able to sleep for short periods of time throughout the night, but then my body would wake and I'd need to take a sip of water. I have spent many nights at girl scout camps...camping at lake houses in the summer, sleeping on the ground in backyards...but never, ever in my life have I tried to sleep in such hot conditions.

In the morning we all showered the sweat we'd accumulated overnight and joined the women downstairs for Day 2. Pintu translated for us what they were speaking of. There was one quote that I found highly amusing, as did everyone else. The woman speaking said in Hindi, "The government did not care about cancer. And then the Maharaja got ill with cancer, and the government began to designate money for cancer. Right now the government does not care about HIV. Perhaps the answer is to give the Maharaja HIV." A funny, but sad joke which implications need not be explained. 

Eventually, it was time for lunch and we ate our last meal in Bariupur before TJ drove us home. It was an eventful overnight trip for the four of us. Something of great interest, beauty, confusion, fun, and extreme heat. I'm so thankful that I was able to participate in the conference, even if only for one day. 

Hati, Hati

Another morning with the girls.

I slip on my sunglasses and carry my mug of coffee up to the roof. The sun hits me and instantly all of the moisture in my skin evaporates into the hot air.  I cross the roof quickly, slide the bolt across the iron gate, and enter their territory. When I round the corner, I hear their tiny voices from above, "Pishimoni!" I smile and wave and start the unsteady walk up the iron slatted staircase to their home. Each metal rung burns the soles of my feet and when I reach halfway, a set of tiny hands reaches down to take my coffee mug. A few quick wipes on the concrete with a wet rag to rid the floor of loose grains of cooked rice, and they unfold the mat that I always sit on.

And then, we begin.

"Rainbow violet, indigo blue.
Rainbow green and yellow too.
Rainbow orange, rainbow red.
Rainbow smiling overhead."


"Kabhi ek, ek, ek
Swasa kay kay kay
Kabhi dui, dui, dui
Swasa no no no
kabhi tin, tin, tin
Swasa cleem, cleem, cleem"

And then after our songs, we move on.

"Pishimoni, binuni!" (Auntie! Braid!)

I say, "Thika. Ek or dui?" (Okay, one or two?)

"Mmmmm....ek." (One)

"Hah. Thika acche." (Yes. Okay.)

One of them digs around until they find the tortoiseshell comb, and Lalita plops in front of me. Kumkum watches with fascination, leaning on my thigh, as I turn her sister's long hair into one french braid. At the end I put both hands on either side of her head to smooth out any loose hairs. I kiss the braid and say, "Sesa." (Finish.)

And Lalita puts her hand on the braid. Kumkum holds up the mirror and Lalita says, "Voooowww!"

I take a break in between braids. I sip my coffee and they offer me some of their breakfast, which I have plenty of downstairs, but I take a few tiny bites of luchi or rice puffs or halwa because it means something to the girls when I eat with them. Sharing food is a bonding experience between us. They find it hilarious when I attempt to eat with my right hand. "Nay, Ami Bengali!" (No, I Bengali), I once said as a joke when I was offered a spoon. Now every time they see me eat with my hands, they repeat the phrase and giggle at me and give me pointers on the best way to scoop rice and dahl and slide it off of my fingers with my thumb, into my mouth.

Lalita points to the elephant charm around my neck. Hati, hati!" (Elephant, elephant!) I point to the matching charms around their necks and say, "Hati, hati!".

When I first got here I was able to find 3 cheap little metal elephant charms. I threaded each on a thin red rope. One for each of us. They are our Hati necklaces. The girls have not taken them off since I tied them around their necks. Nirmal even added another charm.

Kumkum uses the hati around her neck to attack mine. "Ahh!" I feign fright. And they laugh and I laugh and I am so thankful that something so small could make us all so happy.

By the time I finish with Kumkum's two braids, Juma is finished in the kitchen downstairs and she joins us up in their home. We play with the doll, who now sports a red bindi as well as a red fingerprint on her forehead, the kind that the entire family comes home with after a visit to Kalighat Temple. I use the doll to show Juma how to french braid, something we've been working on for the last few weeks.

The girls flip through their school workbooks, eager to show me the English words they've learned.

"Comb, comb, comb your hair.
Brush, brush, brush your teeth."

"Bhalo, bhalo. Khub bhalo" I say. (Good, good. Very good.)

Then it's time for me to shower and begin my day at Durbar. We blow air kisses, hold hands, and Lalita says, "Bye!"

Kumkum puts either hand on my cheeks and stares into my eyes. I send her everything.

"Sundohr," I say. (Beautiful).

And then I stand. Back down the scalding stairs. I'm dripping in sweat. My ponytail sticks to the back of my neck and I know my face is pink. Above me I hear, "Pishimoni?" I pause and look up. "Hmm?"

Lalita is standing on the stairs. She cocks her head and says, "Tomorrow coming?"

I smile. "Hah." (Yes.)

With my empty coffee cup in my hands, I pass through their gate and cross the roof, my heart full.

Sunday, June 7, 2015

Case 458

Last year when I was hospitalized because of the rat bite my days were spent laying in a bed, connected to wires and IVs, in a room on the fourth floor of Apollo Gleneagles hospital. I'd lay on my side and stare out the window. By then, since it was the end of June, the monsoon clouds would begin to creep closer and closer, my signal that the day was half over and perhaps in the morning I would be released and go home. Laura, the TA, spent as much time at the hospital as she could, it was still an hour taxi ride from our apartment and she had many responsibilities with the other students so she could not always be there during the day. 

I quickly became lonely and bored. And just as quickly, I made two friends. Two wonderful Didis from Kerala who were nurses on my wing, 4L. One in particular, Jyothika, would take her time when inserting new channels (IVs) into my already bruised and marked arms and hands. And each day, as she slowly worked, we began to get to know each other. We talked about my life in The States and about her home state in Kerala. I'd just returned from a trip to Kerala and had many photos. She happily looked at all of my photos of the food we'd eaten there. 

Over the next few days I spent less time staring and waiting for the monsoon clouds to bruise the sky and more time waiting for my friend Jyoti to come to my room to change my IV bags or give me my pills or just to say Hi. When I heard the door opening, I wished with all of my heart that it would be Jyothika or Greeshma. My favorite Didis. Five minutes of interaction with people who spoke English and who laughed with me at the terribly bland food I was being fed (rice and boiled chicken only...tea with no sugar or milk). Who held my hands when a procedure hurt. Who fixed my blankets, brushed my hair and took such amazing care of me.

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One day Jyothika showed up for her shift with two rosaries. One for me and one for Laura. I put mine around my neck and didn't remove it until I got home from the hospital. 

I became known at Apollo as "Case 458" or "Rat Bite Case". Hospital employees would come to my room and peek in the door to get a glance at the girl from America who'd been bitten by a rat in Calcutta. Some of them snapped photos with their phones. Jyoti and Greeshma quickly put a stop to it, and they began to stand guard so that no other people would come and gawk at me. 

The day that I left Apollo, I was able to get Jyoti's phone number and we have kept in contact all year. We usually chat about once a week. She sends me photos of her family, I send her photos of mine. She sends me photos of her lunches and dinners and I send her photos of my strange looking American food. When I told her I was coming back, she couldn't believe it. I think that back then, I could not either. 

And finally yesterday, we were able to meet. Jyotikha and Greeshma brought two of their nurse friends who also work at Appollo, and I brought four of the students with me to meet them. We met at a large mall near the hospital and it was a heart exploding type of reunion!

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We caught up, took many photos, and shopped around a bit at the mall. It was so good to see them. They will always be my Didis...even though technically Didi means "older sister", it's a term used for nurses in India. Once they realized last year that actually, I am older than them by 4-5 years, we began to joke that really, I am the Didi. ;-)

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Once again I am left with an experience here in India that has left me nearly speechless and my heart exploding and full all at the same time. 

Wednesday, June 3, 2015

June 3

Currently, Nirmal is folding my underwear. Well, now he's moved on to a sports bra. But I can't help but feel some type of way, even though last year I tried to get used to him and Juma doing our laundry and cooking us food and doing all of our dishes, etc.

The thing is, I stuck my basket of dirty laundry on top of the washer last night around 6pm, hoping that they would just do it this morning. Usually they like to do laundry in the morning, when the sun is hot and the clothes dry quickly. But by sticking my laundry on top of the washer, I guess it was a signal that I wanted it done ASAP, because when I got home from the New Alipore apartment, my laundry was washed and hanging out to dry. In the dark. Sigh. I didn't mean for anyone to have to do it last night, after a long day. And this morning I tried to fold the clean pile but I think instead Nirmal took it as a sign that I was unhappy that he hadn't yet folded it. Because he said, "Sorry, sorry." and then stopped eating his breakfast just to fold my load of clean underwear. 

e stopped and said, "You, any complain? Your problem, my problem. You any student this side, any complain." Which I can now easily interpret to mean, "If any of you guys have a problem or are unhappy with me, please come tell me and I will fix it." I think this may also be in response to the fact that last night we changed the water jug. We have one of those Deer Park type water coolers so that we can easily have access to filtered water. And usually Nirmal changes the water for us because it's heavy and kind of weird to do. But last night it was 11pm and we needed water and we felt bad calling Nirmal to come from his night job (as a night guard at another apartment) around the corner just to do it. 

So we did it ourselves. Which we've never done before. But he noticed. And this morning he apologized and I tried to explain that we just didn't want to call him so late and make him walk over here, but my explanation got lost in translation. Because body language and voice inflection and certain phrases do not have the same meaning here. And so I try to use short, easily understandable sentences. I speak in Banglish (a term we came up with for when we speak in part Bengali part English to each other)...but still my message is so often lost and probably I should just be leaning into it, allowing him to do his job in its entirety because that is what he is paid for, and that is the work he is proud of. But I can't help it, I can't help what's in my gut, that Nirmal's breakfast should not be getting cold because he has now moved on to ironing my sports bras. I didn't even know we had an iron here. He has never ironed before, so I hope this is not his attempt to make up for not knowing that we needed the water changed, or not folding my laundry fast enough before I woke up. 

So many conflicts. SO much difference in culture. 


Today we go to Durbar so that the students can meet with Dr. Jana to talk about the research proposals that they have come up with. I'm pretty pumped for the four groups. I'll write soon about their project proposals and what they want to research while they are here. 

Tomorrow I leave for Bariupur, which is a small town on the outskirts of Calcutta. I'm heading to a sex worker conference for sex workers and sex worker groups from all over India. It should be REALLY interesting and definitely an adventure! 

Friday, May 29, 2015

Heat Wave & Lala Day

One thing I must address first this morning is the deadly heat wave that has gripped India over the past week or so. Over 1500 are dead now. Many people in our group have been contacted by people in the US about it. We knew that it was very, very hot but we didn't really realize that there was such a dangerous heat wave because all of the warnings here in India have been on the news and in the newspapers, which we don't have access to or can't understand. So when parents started emailing us links to news articles in NY Times, etc. we knew that this was a big deal. 

For me personally, it's a little bit scary because I am looking out for the students. I always hope to find a good balance between keeping the students safe and healthy and also not hovering over them and allowing them some autonomy. But when it comes to health or safety, I can't help but go into Didi mode and urge people to drink more water, remind them to fill their bottles as much as possible and make sure that everyone is resting enough in between activities. 

Yesterday we were walking to Durbar's offices and people carried in front of us a dead, what I assumed to be homeless man on a stretcher. He appeared to be so thin and frail. His life extinguished due to heat. Our families are worried abut us, and I am worried about us too. But we are so lucky to have access to as much clean water as we could ever want. Air conditioned bedrooms and living spaces. Access to shade inside buildings throughout the day. A million people here in Calcutta do not.


On Wednesday I took with me a photo of Sam and I to Durbar, where members of Komal Ghandar (the cultural performance wing) and Anandam confirmed his death. Up until then, I had been hoping that perhaps it was all just a big miscommunication. That perhaps we were talking about different people. And during our sessions, every time the door opened I sort of expected to see him walk through. I imagined that I would scream, "SAM!" and hug him and explain the entire thing. 

But no. They saw the picture, nodded and said, "Yes, Samrat dead". And so, it is confirmed. It is true. Sam is gone and I will not see his face at Durbar again. 


I have a lot to write about that's happened this week, but I guess the most salient right now is last night's International Menstrual Hygiene Day, which was hosted by DMSC (Durbar) and Amra Padatik (Children of Sex Workers). The event is basically a chance to educate sex workers about what the menstrual cycle is, the purpose of it, and the importance of menstrual hygiene. There are many myths surrounding menstrual cycles within the community, and improper hygiene can lead to sickness for themselves and others. 

When I agreed to give a short speech at the event, I figured I would be sitting in the crowd with the group and then I would just stand up and quickly say my piece. Instead, at the beginning I was invited to come and sit on stage as an honored guest. I was given a rose to pin on my kurti and sat with the executive committee of Durbar. I was slightly mortified to be sitting up there (literal stage fright!) but also felt extremely honored. 

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We attended this event last year as a group as well, but this year there were a few differences. For one, the program took place in a different district within Sonagachi than the one last year. That meant we had to ride a bus from the central Durbar office in order to get to the event. Last year I only ever rode the metro and used taxis and tuktuks. Never had I taken an Indian bus! There's a first time for everything :)

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The program was lovely overall, although we could not understand most of it because it was in Bengali. From my vantage point on stage, I could see everything, which was fascinating. SO many sex workers and babus (fixed, regular customers of sex workers). The crowd extended extremely far back into the allies, which explains why the speakers were so loud. 

Here is the text of the speech that I gave after the doctors and Durbar members spoke:

"Nomoskar. My name is Kristen Smith and I am from The United States of America. I am here by invitation to learn about Durbar, for which I am very thankful. First I would like to say Thank You to Dr. Jana, the Executive Committee, DMSC and Amra Padatik for inviting me and the other students to this informative and important event.

Since my arrival to India one week ago, I have seen the color red in many places. Red bindis, red vermillion, red bracelets and beautiful red saris. It is clear that the color red is a significant color here in India. 

But also the color red is significant to women all over the world. It is the color of blood, the blood in our bodies that keeps us alive. When babies are born, they have the blood of their mother. So in some ways, blood is life. It is something to celebrate. A woman's menstrual cycle is a sign that our bodies have the ability to make new life. It is not something to be ashamed about and it is not dirty. 

By properly practicing menstrual hygiene, we are not only keeping ourselves healthy, we are showing respect to our bodies, all women, and to the source that made our bodies the way that they are. 

I wish you all very good health. Dhonobaad." 

If you want to see a short video clip of part of my speech, you can click this link here. You can hear the Bengali translation after each paragraph. My translator was so kind and we joked afterwards about her trying to translate properly so that the women understood my analogy/metaphor. Lala = red. Nomoskar = Hello/Greetings. Dhonobaad = Thank you. 

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The best part by far was that at the end they gave me maxi pads to hand out to the sex workers! That is one thing that I never expected to do in my lifetime!

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While I was very honored to be given the opportunity to be a part of the ceremonial handing out of the maxi pads, there was also something that made me uncomfortable. As soon as the other members of the Executive Committee began handing out the maxi pads, a photographer (with a Nikon, might I add, heh) noticed that I was still sitting. He pointed to me and said to the woman in charge "Didi! Didi! Didi!" (sister) and then said something in Bengali which I assume was, "Give her some to hand out so I can take a picture". Because then when I started to hand them out he took about 400 photos of just me handing them out. It felt very...'Melinda Gates with a brown baby in her arms'. 

I truly don't deserve any recognition or praise - it is because of the very hard work of those at Durbar and the sex workers that all of this could happen. I wonder where those man's photos will end up. On the flip side, if he is a photographer for Durbar, perhaps those photos will be used in a way that will provide legitimacy to the cause and elicit money or resources. However, as a white westerner, I definitely do not deserve to be the face of any event put on by Durbar. I don't know...just thinking out loud. 

So much more to write about...Kalighat Temple with Nirmal and his family, special morning time with the girls, etc. I'll be back soon. For now, wish us luck and good health for the heat we will experience today.