This summer, I am interning at a community-based NGO in Berhampur, Orissa, called Solidarity for Developing Communities (SFDC) which works on peace building and education projects among Dalit, Adivasi, and OBCs. I will be helping to develop a proposal for a project for empowering survivors of violence against women, particularly domestic labor trafficking.
LIFE AND WORK
Life in Orissa has been an adjustment for me. Beyond the heat, the noise, the smells and sights, it has been a trial adjusting to life in the Indian workplace. While my service in the Peace Corps provided me a multitude of experiences from which to draw and my visit to India last summer gave me a preview of Indian culture and lifestyle, it is still always a mental and physical shock to enter the unknown—unknown language, unknown customs and behaviors, unknown work styles, unknown events and activities, unknown people. Thankfully, within the past month that I have been here, some of those unknowns have gradually moved toward the spectrum of “known,” or at least they are becoming more familiar.
In fact, I could easily say that life has quickly fallen into a routine here in Berhampur. Mornings at the apartment I share with my Nepali roommate are simple: wake at the sound of my alarm or at the feeling of instant prickling heat once the ceiling fan shuts off due to daily scheduled power cuts, quick bucket bath, pull on my kurta, mangoes and bread for breakfast, and out the door we go. The SFDC office is just around the corner from our apartment, past papaya trees and cows and dying dogs, past young girls on bicycles riding to school with their dupata flying behind them, past strong men hurling bricks from a crumbling house and old men staring idly from the doorstep of their house, past the noise and concrete and dirt. I am amazed every day at how many things there are to see just within that one-block walk to work. And once we arrive at work, well, work is work. Though the pace is slower and more relaxed, it is still just the ins and outs of community development work at headquarters. I do research, edit documents, work on concept reports and proposals, compile surveys, and help with other office-based work, only interrupted by tea—delicious Indian milk cha served by Manu in tiny teacups and boiling hot (it is the only time I allow myself milk, being lactose intolerant… that and kulfi flavored ice cream). My favorite part of the day by far is Sacred Space meditation. Taken from a newspaper column that provides daily inspiration through philosophical and religious quotes, Sacred Space is an hour set aside each day for meditation and discussion about life’s little secrets, and some big ones as well. Having participated in a Vipassana meditation camp in Jaipur last summer, I look forward to these meditative and reflective talks to awaken my mind and spirit and interrupt the monotony of office work.
KARUNA SHANTI ASHRAM
A trip to SFDC’s Karuna Shanti ashram last week was also a welcome change of pace. While we call the program an ashram, really it is a +2 Science College, or the Indian school system’s post-secondary school, college preparatory program for those entering science-based university programs. Tucked in the far corner of a small village off of the main highway, it is green and peaceful—everything that Berhampur is not. The college houses only a few classrooms and dorms for the students and teachers. It is simple (and still in construction) but a joyful space for learning. It was a refreshing visit.
On the other side of the spectrum was our trip a few weeks ago to Puri, a city 4-5 hours from Berhampur which I visited with my roommate. Puri is a famous religious site, home to the Shri Jagannath Temple. To our surprise, when we arrived in Puri after an uncomfortable train ride, the city was celebrating the Shri Jagannath Festival. We arrived in the main square outside of the massive temple to throngs of people praying, singing, and dancing wildly to drum beats. People stood on the balconies of surrounding buildings just to catch a glimpse of the festivities. Considering we did not know there would be a festival in progress, we also had no clue what the festival was celebrating. So while I slowly took in the scene before my eyes and tried to make sense of it, my roommate made friends with a man who turned out to be the news anchor for the national TV station—they were filming the event live from atop one of the buildings and he was scouting the crowd for people to interview. The man let us in on the details of the festival, the one day of the year that the temple’s three Gods are taken out of the temple in order to be bathed. The man also requested that we join him atop the building to be interviewed for the live TV coverage. We shyly agreed and were led like movie stars to the roof of the building just next to the Gods’ alter. News personnel were dashing around the rooftop and rows of people were sitting at the front, having paid a fortune to watch the festival from close. I tried to maintain composure despite having very little knowledge about the festival, and in spite of the heat that made sweat drip into my eyeballs and salt my chin.
After the interviews, we hurried away from the festival to the comfort of a plate of puri or fried puffed bread with curry. Finally, we made our way to the “sea beach” to do some shopping and to enjoy the ocean. The beach itself resembled those in the Northeastern parts of the US with gray-green water, except instead of sea gulls roaming the sand there were cows, dogs, and even a few camels. Instead of bikini-clad girls, women were dressed in full saris or kurta which they wore into the water and somehow did not drown tangled in the heavy cloth. Vendors sold cotton candy and tea. There were hundreds upon hundreds of people, and it smelled of the trash that littered the beach entrance rather than the sandy salty smell of ocean. It was, in a word, the most peculiar beach I had ever seen.
After a hearty seaside meal of mushroom curry, garlic chicken, dal, and rice, my roommate convinced me to enter a cremation ground just across from the beach. Although I had seen cremations before, I was surprised how open the grounds were. Anyone could pass through, and bodies were not contained in any way. Also, when I had seen cremations previously, the bodies had been nearly turned to ash; here however, the body parts were clearly visible and I felt like I was intruding on something very personal. It was disconcerting and I was glad to leave.
We left for the train station, thinking our adventures for the day were over. But we still had a train ride with general class tickets to survive. General class train seats, as compared to Sleeper Class or AC Class are known for being hot, crowded, and uncomfortable. That was an understatement. For 5 hours I balanced on the edge of a seat, inches away those unlucky people who had not found a seat and were forced to stand for 5 hours. With every stop, more people got on so that legs and feet and arms could not be moved without getting in someone’s way. Occasionally, a shouting match broke out between men fighting for a seat or for a little more leg room. One man crawled into the luggage space and looked quite comfortable until the space was needed for actual luggage. Everyone was drenched in sweat. When we neared out stop, we were instructed by other passengers to get up so our seat could be taken by those that had been standing. For 30 minutes we stood like that, pressed chest to back with an inch of space for breathing and hands going numb from holding heavy bags. I could not fathom how those people had stood for 5 hours. Finally we pushed and pulled our way off the train and were led not onto the platform, but to a 6 feet jump onto the train tracks and into the pouring rain. The rain felt like a dream and I wanted to stand there and have the water wash away the sweat and exhaustion but I was in the middle of the train tracks and could not stay there. It was, without a doubt, a trip to remember.
“On the mountains of truth you can never climb in vain: either you will reach a point higher up today, or you will be training your powers so that you will be able to climb higher tomorrow.” — Friedrich Nietzche (from daily Sacred Space column)