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. 



Mom said...

Many polarized emotions in just a few days, the sadness and loss of a person you expected to see again and the sheer joy of seeing and sharing time with Nirmal, Juma and the girls and of course, knowing the number of people in poverty suffering there that don't have the simple, basic ways to combat the intense heat and then being honored to speak at an event. Stay hydrated, stay safe and be well.

The word 'happiness' would lose its meaning if it were not balanced by sadness.
Carl Jung

Love you,

Meghan LP said...

Miss you Kris! Stay as cool as possible - I hope the monsoons have rolled in for some relief! Thinking about you every day! XO