Saturday, 5 April 2008

The Ones Who are Left Behind

Someone said to me recently that it is always more difficult for the left behind than it is for the leaver. I cast my mind back over the different trips I have done over the years and the trips friends and family have done. I recalled the excitement of getting onto planes or trains and waving goodbye to those on the platform and also that sense of emptiness as I turned away from dropping someone off at an airport and retraced my steps, knowing they were the ones full of excitement for the trip and I’d be returning to an empty house…and my thoughts turned again to the women and children I’d met and worked with in my month in Delhi.

For the last visit to the slum I had taken drinks and eats, for the children. I mentioned that the women had painted my nails earlier in the week and I had agreed that I’d put on makeup and wear some jewelery on the Friday. For me “makeup” mostly just means mascara and lipstick and jewelery is a simple chain and some earrings. Having apologized for my lateness in arriving, I saw that everyone was smartly dress and I was asked to sit while I was dressed with more chains, my earring were replaced and my arm filled with bracelets. It all felt a little much, but we all laughed and the women passed around my little camera, taking pictures. Regrettably, most of these shots have tops of heads cut off or half a face displayed, but they’ll still remind me of the great afternoon.

Once they were satisfied that I was appropriately dressed, they set to singing.

Here women and children all got involved, with one of the women beating time on a little drum. Each of the women got up to dance and there was a lot of laughter. Finally we settled the children and they were given food and drinks.

As I mention it was an afternoon of laughter, singing and dancing, but every so often someone would stop and ask why I had to go and why I wouldn’t stay and that next time I should come for three months, with a few suggestions about staying a year.

This does worry me and I did not want the afternoon to end on a sad note, as some seemed to be heading that way. My only response to this is that we have a choice – either we don’t venture out and meet new people and have new experiences, for fear that we will ultimately have to say

goodbye, or we go out and meet new people and make new friends and may be someday, some place, we could meet again and if we don’t, our lives have been the better for the meeting. Certainly this is true for me, I only hope and pray that it is true for them.

Saying Goodbye to Zakhira

My last day in the slums and in Delhi was a little crazy. I bumped into Rani at the Asha offices in the morning. Rani is one of the Asha administrators, overseeing the work in a number of slums, including Zakhira, where we painted the clinic last year. I had really wanted to see the women I’d met last year and had talked about visiting that week. However, through a misunderstanding I thought they were too busy to see me on the Thursday and they thought I’d agreed to visit. On Friday morning Rani told me the women waited all day with garlands and I never arrived. Horrified I asked Rani to call the slum and let them know I was on my way. This was Friday morning, just before 12 and I was due to be in Jeevan Nagar by 2 for our farewell party. A quick glance at the map of Delhi showed me that they were at opposite side of Delhi, but I knew I had to go. Besides, I had wanted to say hello to the wonderful women we’d met last year. So an auto driver was briefed on directions and we set off. I did not realise that the journey was some 30 kilometres away and that it would take the better part of an hour to get to the slum. Also, when we got lost, I had no idea of where we were or what to do. The auto driver was no help, so we managed to get a third party involved, and using my mobile, tracked down one of the folk at the Asha offices who was able to give directions. With much hand waving, Hindi and gesticulations at me, there was finally enough information provided and we made out way to the slum. The women were waiting, having been warned of my pending arrival, ready with their garlands and a warm welcome. It was great to see the old faces and see how well the clinic we’d painted is being used. It did not look like it had only been painted a year before. The children’s resource rooms are grubby from many fingers and feet and the constant traffic, but I'm happy with that, as it means they have a space they love and can use.

It was also great to see computers in the rooms and the children using them. I only saw 2 in each room, though the young teacher there said they have 6 at Zakhira. I asked see what they're doing and the new young teacher there showed me their materials. The kids do computer literacy in English and start from the very beginning... “this is keyboard, mouse, hard drive…” Some are making great progress and are creating word documents and working with the drawing programs. Asha’s next venture is getting Internet access into the slums where they have computers and Zakhira now has this access. I’m really pleased about this, as they can now learn more about the world beyond their walls.

I settled down to chat to the women and have a quiet cup of tea, trying to still the loud ticking of the clock in my head, reminding me that I should be heading for my own slum and the farewell we’d planned there. Still I was really pleased that I’d stopped by and shared tea and caught up on a few stories. One of which reminded me of the really slow pace at which all these remarkable changes take place. Zakhira is divided into 2 sections. Both lie along the railway line, but the second of these is a little rougher than the one where we worked in the clinic. This second slum did not have any toilet facilities and they were building a new toilet block while we were there. When I asked how it was going with the toilet block, I was told that the inauguration ceremony was due to take place the next week. A year on and only now are they ready for use!

Apologising for my flying visit, I got back into my auto and headed for Jeevan Nagar, not realising my journey would take another hour and a half. When I arrived at 3pm, the kids had been waiting patiently for me for some time.

The Wonder of a Dupatta

It’s much easier to wear traditional dress while working in the slums than to decide which western outfit would be appropriate. I wear the SalwaarKameez. This is a long tunic over very baggy trousers. The ensemble is finished by a long wide scarf or wrap called a Dupatta. Not only is the outfit very comfortable, it feels wonderfully feminine, graceful and helps me blend in a little. Being 5’9” and fair skinned, I tower over most of the women in the slum, who average around 5’ and don’t really blend in, but the dress certainly helps. As I taught sitting cross-legged on the floor, the outfit was practical and ideal.

I have always loved scarves and have a collection of traditional African wraps, like my vibrant cotton kikois, which serve a multitude of purposes; sometimes a throw over a couch, sometimes a table cloth, always in a back pack when hiking (who knows when you’ll need a towel for the unexpected swim), and of course as a scarf or a wrap near a pool. You’ll have realised I'm not talking about a skimpy scarf, but a piece of cloth that is a metre wide and a couple of metres long.

As I moved through my experiences in Delhi, I realised that the Dupatta is an equally hard working piece of fabric. I first observed its usefulness when we’d been in a meeting for a while and a young child started getting fractious. He’d been pottering around quietly not disturbing anyone, but the meeting had continued too long and he was starting to bore. His mum called him over and pulled him into her lap. She pulled her dupatta over the length of his body, covering his head and he seemed to snuggle into the dark space created and promptly went to sleep. It goes without saying that it provides a wonderful space of privacy for a breast-feeding mother too.

I was not adept at wearing this length of fabric as the Indian women are, but as the weeks passed I did enjoy it more and more. I have included a few snaps taken showing it worn draped back over my shoulders, which is how many wear it, or just slung about my neck. The one I'm wearing in these snaps is very light, but I have others that are more robust.

The first week that I was in Delhi, it was cooler in the evenings and the journeys home in the open auto rickshaws meant that my dupatta served to provide warmth as I pulled it tightly about my shoulders. Later when it got hotter, and I was using the autos to get to the slum at midday it was very useful. At the height of the heat you get a wide range of smells - mostly not good, so the cloth was handy to subtly cover the mouth and nose to help mask the unpleasant wafts and just the dust that is kicked up all the time. In the evening when I was tired after the day, I pulled the dupatta over my head, using it as a head shawl, so that it fell and covered my face slightly and shielded me from the unwelcome advances of the evening sellers sticking their heads into the open auto as we waited at traffic lights in the busy traffic on the way home.

Of course, it served as light blanket to help me sleep at the Delhi airport, when my flight home was delayed by 7 hours. Draped as I was over a few chairs, I pulled it over the length of my body and shut the world out.