Wow. Where to begin. To say that I am suffering from a culture shock in India would be an understatement. After my 14.5 hour flight from Chicago to Delhi, I was immediately swept into the chaotic world that is India and there was no looking back. At the Delhi airport I was picked up by Amita and Pranay, the directors of Shake Hands, the volunteer organization I am working with for four weeks that is based in Jaipur. Shake Hands cooperates with a local NGO Alliance for Education and Development that plays an “active role in the socio-economic and cultural development of the poor and needy community in India with the aim of creating a world for the children free from fear, uncertainty and hunger, as well as both physical and mental ailments.” It hopes to “create a world filled with freedom, enthusiasm, and with ample opportunities to grow and to develop the skills for both children and women.” This is a relatively new organization, having had their first volunteer only one year ago, and I wanted to work with it because it’s use of my key word of “freedom” and the possibilities of exploring the idea of freedom in more underdeveloped, rural areas—areas I may not have access to otherwise. I am their ninth volunteer, and am currently the only one, which means I have had to dive into India culture head first, and I must admit at times I have felt like I am drowning. This is my first time to visit Asia, and right now I am trying to find the order in what seems to me to be complete chaos. For me, I am finding there is a type of freedom I wasn’t aware of until being stripped of it, and that is an aspect of the freedom of identity—to be part of a culture, to understand a culture, and to blend in and merge with a culture. In the area I am in, outside of the center of Jaipur city, very few westerners comes, so I have had to grow accustomed to the many stares.
My work Shake Hands is taking me to the nearby village of Hothoj, located about 19 km from the center of Jaipur and a 12 km auto-rickshaw ride away from my housing. The idea behind my volunteer work is to empower the women in the village in two ways. The first way is through visiting the homes of local village women who are confined to their houses because of family obligations in their male dominated society, denied participation in activities for their self-improvement. Most families are joint families, meaning that multiple parents and children live together in one home, which means there are lots of mouths to feed and clothes to wash, the responsibility of which goes to the women. The second part of my volunteer project is teaching village girls, aged 14-16, about the computer.
Right now, the first part of my volunteering project is difficult for me to grasp exactly what it is I am supposed to be doing. There are many barriers for me to know how to empower women whose lives are so different from mine, and to know what I am allowed to say as to not offend their culture. They also do not speak English, so Amita comes with me to translate, which means I am not sure if my language expresses the same ideas in their language. Most of my time is spent asking the women about their daily lives and answering questions they have about my life (mainly if I am married, why I am not married, and about my family). I am supposed to be helping them to understand the power vested in them, providing information about sanitation and hygiene, basic information about HIV/AIDS, budget planning, and helping them to solve problems they may be having. However, the cultural barrier is making it hard for me to engage in these topics with them. I visit a different household every day, so I do not get a chance to know these women on a deeper level, and it is uncomfortable for me to broach some of these subjects with them. Amita has been helping me with my project by asking some of the women about freedom in their lives and if they feel free. I am very appreciative of her help with this as there is no way I could engage with this segment of the population on my own, and I think it is an important perspective. So far, the answers we have received from the women is that they do feel free in their lives and that they can do whatever they want—their husbands allow them too. However, their knowledge of what they can do is limited to the space within their walls. It is hard for me to see this as being free because I have the knowledge of more possibilities for women. My work with the young girls of this same community is highlighting for me the freeing power of education. There is a marked contrast between the teenage girls I am working with and their mothers and grandmothers. The girls are all in school, most speak basic English (as well as Hindi and some Sanskrit), and there seems to be so much more hope and potential in them for the future. The same shift occurred in America as the role of women began changing in society, and I think it is a trend that can be seen throughout the world. For me, the idea of empowering the women of this community is much easier with the younger generation, helping to achieve more and to have a brighter future. My time with the young women is spent teaching them the computer. However, around 17 girls have been showing up to the class, but there is only one computer, so this has posed interesting challenges in how to cope with the class size. Amita suggested incorporating an English language class. Most of the girls have a pretty firm grasp on basic English, so my challenge right now is to figure out what level they are at and to move on from their, finding creative and fun ways to share English with them. With the computer section of the class, some of the girls are at different levels as well. Some have never seen the computer while some have had some experience with them, so again, I am trying to figure what level to teach them at (although my own knowledge of the computer, besides basic keyboard functions, the internet, and Word, is also pretty limited). This volunteering program is designed to rely on the creativity and skills of the volunteers, so right now I am struggling to figure out how my skills can be utilized for these two projects. With the older women, I have been trying to ask them about some health issues and if they do yoga, hoping they will want to learn some yoga moves as yoga something I know and is also something they have some knowledge of and may want to learn more (so far there has been no interest). Writing is another skill I hope to share, but with the older women it is not possible, so with the younger girls I am hoping to inspire their creativity through writing, giving them an important medium of expression. I am hoping I will come to understand more how to make this project work.
India is a country of festivals and celebrations, so while I have only been here one week, there have already been two celebrations. On Friday, August 15, Independence Day was celebrated, the 61st year of Indian independence from British rule. From what Amita has told me, while still an important holiday, India’s Constitution Day, which is in January, is the more celebrated of the two important days for Indian freedom. India’s struggle for freedom had entered a new phase in 1915 when Gandhi returned from South Africa after experiencing racial prejudice. He led a moral protest against British presence through civil disobedience, and in this India had its first national and popular political campaign. In 1930, Gandhi led his Salt March, which was a protest against the British monopoly on salt production. The same year, Congress adopted the resolution for complete independence for India. In 1942, Congress called for the British to “Quit India.” At the same time, the Muslim League demanded a separate state for Muslims, and in 1947 independence and partition came simultaneously. It was at midnight on August 14-15 1947 that power was transferred to India’s first Prime Minster, Pandit Jawaharlal Nehru. Unfortunately, I missed the festivities here because I didn’t realize how early they started! The Prime Minister gave his annual speech at 7 am, and the parade in Jaipur was also fairly early in the morning. But, I did venture out into the Jaipur city center on Independence Day and saw the Indian flag proudly being displayed by many as I toured the City Palace complex and Hawa Mahal.
Yesterday, August 16, was the festival of Raksha Bandhan. This festival is for brothers and sisters, and the sisters give the brothers the rahki in exchange for rupees, symbolizing that the brother will protect the sister. I was invited to celebrate this festival with the family who lives upstairs, and we drove to another part of Jaipur to celebrate at another family member’s house. We were in a Punjabi community in Jaipur, and this area does not typically see tourists, so I was definitely the main attraction for the day for many as I walked down the streets. This family, which is much larger than my own, welcomed me most graciously, and I had a wonderful day learning more about Indian culture and immersing myself in it. I even got 4 new brothers as I put the rahki on them and they gave me rupees! It was a very long and busy day. I went to four temples, two Hindu and two Sikh– a different branch of Hinduism. The family took me to a nearby botanical garden of sorts (we crammed about 17 people into a very tiny car) and climbed up a large hill for a panoramic view of Jaipur. When we returned home, we also went to a park and then to the tail end of one of the cousin’s cricket matches. During the day, I had a chance to ask one of the family members about freedom in India, and he said that India is a very free country, and as I have seen while working in the rural community, it continues to grow freer with each generation as more opportunities and education become available. India’s rich diversity is something that continues to amaze me as well. As I am coming to know the people around me, I am seeing how many of them speak different language, have different religions, come from different backgrounds, yet they all live together harmoniously. On the car ride back from my day of celebrating, the husband of the woman whose family we visited was telling me that you only had to go 30 km in India to find a completely different culture.
I’m not sure India is a place that I could understand completely even if I spent a lifetime here, but after only one week I have certainly learned a lot and that knowledge will only continue to grow as I continue to interact with the people I have already met and as I meet different-different people (all the Indian people I have met say different twice, I haven’t figured that out yet). Slowly, I am beginning to find and understand the order in Indian society.