Tuesday, February 24, 2009

Be veg, be strong

This morning, Shanta and I visited Mother Theresa’s Home for the Destitute and Dying, instead of our usual placements. In the car, we passed through Delhi to the outskirts of town where boys scavenged through trash with sticks. Marble and stone shops recruited day laborers who stood waiting beside the road, hoping for employment. Diseased looking cows chewed their cud and stared blankly into the morning fog. As we passed through towns that rivaled the inner city slums, Vicky (one of the staff who was accompanying us) pointed out elegant “farm houses” with big sprawling gardens and padlocked gates which the wealthy rent for parties and weddings. It seemed odd to me that the rich and powerful choose these shanty towns for their posh retreats and extravagant weddings. Here the air carries with it the scent of poverty.
We turned off the road and into the home. There is a strict policy against photography inside the grounds to prevent misunderstandings and misrepresentations. A few years ago, there was a terrible confusion in Kolkata (Calcutta) when a volunteer sent pictures of the Sisters tying a child to a chair into the local paper. When the Sisters saw him again, they kindly asked him to try and feed the child (who was mentally handicapped) without the child hurting himself or knocking away the spoon without the use of ties. After an hour of trying and failing, the volunteer begged the Sisters for forgiveness for misrepresenting them. Forgiveness was instant but the repercussions of his actions lasted. As we pulled to a stop, I wondered if words would ever suffice to describe what a video could only begin to introduce. For the volunteers who have worked in the past and the Sisters who work there now, I know there is no way to communicate the feeling of the home and the residents within. This is only an attempt.
Beautifully lush gardens surrounded us, contrasting the dirt streets outside the complex walls. The home was encompassed by a tropical and self-sufficient farm. A woman in a blue and white habit greeted us and led the three of us inside where two gated courtyards separated the male and female residents. The men and women who live here are from the streets and slums. Ninety percent of them are mentally ill and most are dying. As we walked through, the women swarmed us, smiling and laughing, touching our hands desperate for the attention of a single smile. Other women stayed back watching, unsure of us. The Sister explained that if we chose to help, any work would be appreciated. We would make beds, clean floors, help feed the residents who were unable to do so themselves, and simply be with them.  On the men’s side, a young nun from Germany was helping to dress open wounds. The men sat along a line of benches, waiting their turn to have their arms and legs re-bandaged. Flies clouded the air, landing on the sores. I’ve seen similar scenes in war movies, yet no camera can make it real until the flies are landing on you and the men are staring into your eyes as they ask your name.
I’ve been considering switching volunteer placements for a while, though I’m still unsure of where I would move to. I’ve seen three sites now at Mobile Crèche, schools for kids in the city slums, but they did not compare to the feeling of Mother Theresa’s Home. On Thursday I’m visiting another NGO (non-governmental organization) called Jagori where women are empowered through the sales of handmade crafts. This weekend, I may decide to move placements and begin working at either Jagori or Mother Theresa’s Home.
After lunch today, Vicky took the volunteers to Swaminarayan Akshardham (yeah, try saying that five times fast with a mouth full of water). The Akshardham is somewhat like a temple, although the brochure calls it “a unique complex of Indian culture.” Unique is right. We pull up in the CCS van and first of all, Vicky tells us we should leave our shoes in the car because otherwise we have to leave them at the ‘boot house’ when we enter the temple. We dutifully remove our shoes and walk barefoot up to the entrance and go through security. Security in India seems to consist of a metal detector and guard and appears practically everywhere (train stations, museums, temples). After walking through the metal detector, which beeps at everyone and is ignored by all (essentially just an obnoxious beeping doorway), a guard pats you down and let me tell you, they do pat thoroughly (although again, they never question what’s in your pockets). Everyone passes the security check and the guards laugh as they inform us that shoes are allowed inside. We look around and sure enough, everyone else is wearing shoes. Live and learn.
The actual complex is absolutely beautiful but unfortunately photography is prohibited (as are cds, bags, food, fire, firearms, helmets, and many other unusual things). I could describe the incredible architecture to you but I’m pretty sure you should simply google it instead as I have even better things to write about. Once inside we purchase tickets to the many attractions, yes attractions (as in theme park-ish). While the Akshardham is a temple, it is dedicated to a man named Bhagwan Swaminarayan and what better way to educate the masses about him than with animatronics and a boat ride through history! Just imagine the splendor of Disneyworld, the budget of Dollywood, and the mystical intrigue of ancient India.
 We are ushered into a room with a semi-circle of benches facing a large rock and a spectacular night sky behind it. The lights dim and a voice that rivals the typical movie trailer narrator begins a dramatic introduction. “It took 7,000 artisans five years to carve the stone of the Akshardham. How many does it take to carve a human life? Only one…” The lights flicker and behold the rock rotates to reveal the figure of a man emerging from the stone holding a chisel. Deep dramatic voice- “You can achieve constant happiness. Bhagwan Swaminarayan did. Journey through time to learn his wisdom.”  The lights come on and a door opens to our right. The next room is dark as we settle on benches, this time facing a pool of water and miniature island. As the lights brighten, I’m horrified to see the creepiest animatronic children ever. A story unfolds, of a young Bhagwan who heroically saves dying fish from two fishermen. The moral of the story- the world would be a better place without violence or savory fish dishes. PETA supporters would be proud. Again, we are ushered into another room where scenes unfurl of Bhagwan’s life. I would just like to stress that there is nothing more terrifying than nine realistic animatronic yoga students chanting OOMMMM in the dark. Fourty minutes and countless animatronic scenes later, we make our way to the boat ride where we again travel through time. On our way out, cardboard animals with thought bubbles promoted peace and vegetarianism. Be veg, be strong. Once on the boat, we float by sets reminiscent of Dollywood’s Blazing Fury depicting the first university and hospital in the world. Lesson learned: Don’t be fooled, India invented everything.
Back in the car, we were reunited with our shoes. We were exhausted on the drive back. Thanks to A R Rahman winning an Oscar for Slumdog Millionaire, his hit song Jai Ho seems inescapable. Falling asleep in the car, images of Mother Theresa’s Home mix with eerie robotic children dancing along to Bollywood music. Just another day in India. JAI HO!

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