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India: Women and Community

Musings

India: Women and Community

Megan Harrod

First, let me apologize for not writing as much as I thought I might. Actually, originally, I had planned to write a chapter of my book (or, in other words, one short story) each day while in India. A much wiser friend than myself cautioned me against doing so. That was smart. It turns out wifi is hard to come by in small villages, and even in big city Bombay's cafes. What is even more surprising is that a SIM with a data package is extremely affordable in India, so I can storytell from the road. It just happens a little bit slower, because I'm writing on my iPhone 6. Yep, you read that right. I left my laptop at home. Can you believe it?! Move slowly, right?! 

Since I arrived and dove into the culture, I've been wanting to write about the resilience and beauty of these Indian women. The women of India are stunning, strong, and vibrant - a reflection of the culture. Wherever I travel, I find the women in their colorful saris mesmerizing, silently basking in their radiance. Every once in a while, they'll catch me smiling at them in awe, and they always smile back. On the crowded train, passing in the busy Bombay streets, at the community center, in traffic...everywhere - it is incredible how a gesture like a smile can completely change the vibe of a space. West and East...we're humankind, and we're more alike than you'd think. 

Arushi chats with Ramji about this handwoven blanket during our #ExploreTheInitiative adventure to Gujarat. 

Arushi chats with Ramji about this handwoven blanket during our #ExploreTheInitiative adventure to Gujarat. 

Let's start with Arushi, my hostess. She's a young and passionate product designer who founded The Initiative and works to partner with craftspeople by providing them sustainable livelihoods through her business. Patchwork blankets, upcycled sari godhadis, patchwork yoga mat bags and more. Her work is equally beautiful and functional.

One of Arushi's patchwork yoga mat bags. 

One of Arushi's patchwork yoga mat bags. 

I met Arushi through a storytelling project she did with Ethnotek, when she volunteered to visit Master Weaver Vankar Shamji's weaving village. And she, and her family, have been so incredibly accommodating since my arrival. So nice segue to talk about her insanely awesome mother, Poornima, for a few moments.

Poornima teaches autistic student Rishaan during their lesson last Saturday morning. 

Poornima teaches autistic student Rishaan during their lesson last Saturday morning. 

Poornima is so, so talented and gifted. A musician who has studied Indian Classical Music since the age of 7 under the Late Mr. Ratnakar Pai of the Jaipur Gharana, Poornima's interest in devotional music and Vedic chants led her to explore the therapeutic benefits of sound and music. Last Saturday I had the pleasure of watching Poornima teach a few of her students. All with beautiful voices, each one of them struggles for their voice to be heard in class. With autism, Rishaan has progressed quite extensively through sound therapy with Poornima. I was so touched by his voice when he sang "Imagine" that I was nearly moved to tears. Her patience is insurmountable and her art a special art. She is available for workshops on Sound Toning and Omkar Pranayam and currently aiming to plan a tour in the states - would be perfect for universities and yoga studios. Holler if interested. 

A young woman involved in CORP's educational program refines her sewing skills.  

A young woman involved in CORP's educational program refines her sewing skills.  

Last week we took the train to Thane, to meet with Community Outreach Programmes (CORP) about a potential collaboration between Arushi's social enterprise, The Initiative, and the women who work for CORP. CORP envisions a society where all women and children are dignified, empowered, and their basic rights are respected. While we were there, one of the students learning henna insisted on giving mehndi (henna), which was lovely. Following the visit to Thane, we ventured to meet another group of women Arushi works with, who have emerged from human trafficking and empowered through business. Wow. Just wow. To get there we walked through the closest community to a slum that I've experienced firsthand here. Children were laughing, occupying their time with a simple game of marbles, women washed clothing and cooked...life was very busy there. I just thought to myself what an entirely different life we live. How blessed are we?! I've said this before, but the value of life is different here. I guess it kind of comes with the territory when a country has 1.3 billion people. Anyway, where was I?! Oh yes, the women who have been empowered through business to rise out of the human trafficking ashes. They had a real, palpable sense of pride in what they did, and I could tell they really admired Arushi. The world needs more people like these women: stunning, strong and vibrant.

For a moment, allow me to share a unique experience I encountered on the way that trip to Thane. It happened on the train, one of my all-time favorite modes of transport. You see, there's an entire subculture around these train communities - men and women who have traveled long distances by train to come to the city for their work. After a long day of work and the added commute, these women then also shoulder the responsibility of cooking and taking care of their families when they get home at the end of the day. Absolutely incredible. When you take a train in Bombay it doesn't take long to realize there is a sort of system or flow to movement, and if you don't flow with India, India won't flow with you. First of all, let's talk about the fact that on the main routes and stations, there are bodies on bodies on bodies overflowing from the train cars. This is no exaggeration, and this is no Switzerland or Germany, folks. This is real life and it doesn't get much more raw or authentic (or pungent) than this, folks. For a second just attempt to consider what 20 million+ people looks like, and you'll begin to understand why any type of travel is chaotic. Train travel is no exception. However, silver lining is that there are indeed female train cars. Arushi told me a little bit about the subculture of these female train cars and I find it fascinating. We took our seats and I enjoyed the people watching and smiling at strangers, as well as witnessing the goings-on of the train car commerce - individuals selling everything from scarves to bindis. But what I found most fascinating was what happened when we were about to exit the train. There seemed to have been a system, and there was definitely an alpha. She organized us into two rows in front of the train exit and told us to stand shoulder to shoulder. I giggled in amusement and some of the gals in their saris giggled at my giggles of amusement. You see, in Bombay, as Arushi told me, everyone is rushing to get everywhere but no one is really ever on time. There's this sort of integral flow here, and if you don't move with it you get moved by it. What the women were doing was banding together to create a force that would push off of the train car together in unity. Working together toward a common goal. The reason? Because they knew there would be women on the other side trying with all of their force to enter the train and snag a prime seat. As it turns out, we were the stronger crew that day. I couldn't stop laughing. Everyone is yelling and pushing and then it just stops and life goes on, no hard feelings. When we exited the train I just stood their on the platform consumed by a fit of giggles. That was the highlight of my day. Talk about women in community. Damn. 

Arushi sits with Raji Ben and Shabri by the loom as Raji Ben creates a plastic weaving sample for The Initiative.  

Arushi sits with Raji Ben and Shabri by the loom as Raji Ben creates a plastic weaving sample for The Initiative.  

From there, let's travel to Gujarat, where a crew of three including Arushi, her product designer friend Aakash and I ventured on an epic #ExploreTheInitiative 4-day handcraft mission. Raji Ben ("Ben" means "sister") one of the plastic weavers, had a beautiful story. She came from a large family of farmers whose livelihood depended on good weather and therefore good crops. Being from Gujarat, which is a desert region, there would often be periods of time where there was not sufficient rain for the crops. Though women don't typically weave, Raji Ben insisted upon learning and her uncle would travel the distance to her loom to teach her to weave, starting at the age of 15 years old in order to earn money that would sustain her family. Twenty years later is she's still weaving. She's proud of her work, and she should be - it's beautiful. 

"Nani Masi" ("little aunt") and Arushi select a color scheme for some plastic weaving samples. 

"Nani Masi" ("little aunt") and Arushi select a color scheme for some plastic weaving samples. 

While in Gujarat we stayed at a guesthouse specifically committed to handcraft called Khamir. It's peaceful and full of various kinds of handcraft from weaving to bell-making. 

The women of Khamir, along with the cook. The woman on the left and the one in the pink and purple sitting in the middle are the ones that call me "Megan Ben". 

The women of Khamir, along with the cook. The woman on the left and the one in the pink and purple sitting in the middle are the ones that call me "Megan Ben". 

The other day two of the women at the guesthouse came and sat down next to me one day. They speak Hindi and no English, so Arushi has to translate everything. They asked about by henna, my tattoo, my bracelet, and then she gave me a sweet high five (they do that a lot here, but it's different than at home). She gave me a high five and then called me "Megan Ben" which means "Megan sister" - a greeting in here which is a sign of respect. She noted we both had tattoos so we took a picture (our arms side by side, the main image for this post). I love it. I'm surrounded by the most amazing people. 

My new friends: the ladies of Khamir.  

My new friends: the ladies of Khamir.  

The children are drawn to me - it doesn't matter where I go, they stare and say the only English word they know, "HI!" quite enthusiastically. Even in the dark they see me. I try to blend but I can't. I had quite the conversation with a 15 year old gal on the rooftop the other night at an artisan's home. She was wondering if I knew any stars, played cricket, where I was staying that night, etc. Aakash and Arushi both laugh and say "white privilege."

These little chicks were adorable, and even let me take a selfie with them.  

These little chicks were adorable, and even let me take a selfie with them.  

Curious stares always give way to big smiles...smiles seem to diffuse any tension, and I just love this phenomenon. I'm back in Bombay for the weekend and the monsoon has arrived, which has cooled things down quite a bit. The sunset last night was epic, though I could only grab a glimpse from our cab on the way home from the airport.

Bombay Sunset

Bombay Sunset

On Monday I will say "see you later" to Arushi and travel by myself to Jaipur and onward for two weeks. I'll likely write more frequently while I'm alone. The main message I want to relay is that the people of India are warm and really lovely. Sure, there are bad and broken souls too, but there are bad and broken souls everywhere in this world. The India that you see through my eyes is the India that really exists if you approach it with love, respect, patience and a wide open mind...and, okay, a bit of badassedness too - cause a vagablonde could always use some of that! Just like the women of India! 

Please let me know if there's anything you'd like to know about India - I'm happy to write on topics you're curious about. Just leave a note in the comments!