Wednesday, March 4, 2009

Old and New

This past weekend five new volunteers came to Delhi (two others passed through on their way to Dharamasala, another CCS site). It’s been interesting watching the group dynamics change. I realized just how much of a family we had all become: Tom, Laiah, Lindsay, Shanta, Sarah, Cindy, the staff and I. Friday night, Cindy (who lived in the bedroom next to mine) said goodbye and set off for the airport, and we all prepared for the new arrivals. Over the weekend, people trickled in. New luggage appeared in Cindy’s room along with new attitudes and new accents. Shanta, Laiah, and Tom had gone away for the weekend so Lindsay, Sarah, and I did our best to welcome everyone and assure them jet lag would fade, the dust will settle, and the food isn’t all that spicy after all. Listening to the questions, fears, and hopes of the new volunteers, I realized how comfortable Delhi has become.
As the week began, everyone watched as the new volunteers settled in and started adjusting to life in India. Murmurs of complaint mixed with hesitation but also joy at a new city and new acquaintances. Monday, I accompanied Charlotte (from NYC) to Raja Bazaar and then to another Mobile Creche site called NBCC where we would both be working (I’m attempting to change placements but don’t quite know where I’ll end up). Again I was surrounded by new faces, this time of children.  I was beginning to get tired of introductions and first impressions and missed the familiar routine of the past weeks.
Tuesday, for the first time since jet lag, I woke up before my alarm. Shanta was holding a plate with an omelet and toast and smiling as she sang happy birthday to me. I rolled out of bed and to the table and discovered there was precious and rare cheddar cheese in my omelet- today was going to be a good day. I walked over to the office to meet Lindsay and Charlotte. As I walked into the CCS office, I found a bouquet had been delivered for me with a blank note but the receipt had my parents’ names on it (my dad explained later he didn’t realize where to leave a note when he ordered them online). Bela had written happy birthday across the chalk board and the staff all congratulated me on being one day older and then quickly informed me that in India, it’s tradition for the birthday person to bring a treat to share. I laughed and then headed off to work seriously contemplating how many ways I could use eggs and bread (the only ingredients in our flat) that might be considered a treat.
After work, Shanta and I had a lunch appointment with Mrs. Jaya- a retired professor and NGO activist for women’s rights. I knew this would be an interesting meeting and was intimidated by the formality of it. On the drive to her house, we stopped in traffic. On the street beside us sat a woman beating an old worn drum. Immediately her two young boys, no older than five began dancing at our windows begging for change. They had charcoal mustaches drawn on their faces. The woman prodded her toddler who stood and began bouncing to the beat of the drum. Child beggars are common in Delhi as begging has become an organized crime here. Not unlike the plot of Slumdog Millionaire, children are sometimes kidnapped from the slums and forced into this poverty, occasionally crippled or starved in order to evoke more sympathy. At our last meeting Mrs. Jaya had counted the many homes and shelters for the poor as well as various NGOs eager to provide for them. There are always labor jobs in Delhi. Giving to beggars only encourages the crime and the lifestyle, she explained. I couldn’t help but feel a mix of emotions when I looked at this woman, beating her drum. A semblance of anger welled inside me as I watched her beat beat beat her drum. Her children danced in the lanes of traffic as she beat beat beat. Who drew the mustaches? Beat beat beat. Why doesn’t she work? Beat beat beat.  Will her sons ever read or write? Beat beat beat. What will her children do when there’s no one to beat beat beat a drum? I couldn’t look away from the boy by my window. I wondered if he could ever escape the system and make a life for himself or if the beat beat beat of culture and a tradition of poverty would play out in his future.
I thought of the kids I’ve come to know and love from equally difficult positions, children from all over India who move with the construction companies to live in the dirt. I thought of Udmeela who may never count past ten but at least she will never have to dance to a drum in the streets, not because she has money but because she has hope. I looked away as the van rolled forward and thought what a difference birth makes. I couldn’t decide how to feel that I had been born to a family who believed in me, who could provide for me, who had the luxury of worrying about cars and mortgages.  
As with everything in India, our drive carried us away from one extreme and to another. We arrived at Mrs. Jaya’s house and stepped into the world of India’s elite. Her guard opened the heavy gate for us. Her servant opened the door. Her son sat down to lunch with us and discussed his new book on the effects of globalization in India. We talked of market forces and capitalism and the vendors on the street, slums in the shadows of glass malls, damming the Ganges and flooding homes to produce more electricity. I thought of how when we brush suffering and sacrifice out the window, it’s bound to fall on someone on the street. We sat with Mrs. Jaya and listened as she told stories of caste and creed, love and religion. We sipped our tea and wondered about the future be it India, America, or somewhere in between.
By the time we got back to the apartments, dinner was almost ready. I decided to honor Indian culture and make shortbread cookies for dessert. Luckily, none of the staff had anything to compare the cookies to, having never had shortbread before and didn’t mind the somewhat salty outcome (I blame the salted butter). Just when everyone had gathered for dinner, the staff broke out a beautiful chocolate cake and Bela insisted I cut the first piece. As I put it on the plate she smeared icing on my face while Vicky and Pauline took pictures. Bela and the staff presented me with a beautiful journal made by women of the NGOs. Pawan and Ganshyam had prepared a birthday meal and apparently my favorite foods seem to be starches as dinner consisted of mashed potatoes, macaroni salad, bread, and pasta. Sitting with the staff and all the volunteers that night, I couldn’t have been more blessed. I thought of friends and family back home waking up to Tuesday morning and hoped their day would hold as many challenges, contradictions, and joys as mine had.
Wisdom from Mrs. Jaya
"Humility and compassion are out of fashion these days. Every now and again someone comes along like Christ, Buddha, Gandhi, Muhammad, or Martin Luther King Jr. who is humble and compassionate. They are all made of the same metal."
"The contradictions of life are playing themselves out… all we can do is choose to live on the right side of humanity."

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