Tuesday, June 24, 2008

...since bihar...a quick update

Alright quick update about Delhi:
I'm doing some research at JNU and prepping for some more field work (hopefully).

I've also tried to get to know the city better which has been great. I made a couple trips to different parks with Muslim ruins. I visited the Museum of Modern art the other day and took a walk around "India Gate".

I also ventured into the Delhi night life. I went salsa dancing with some friends last night. It was incredibly fun/funny. There was a Kashmiri guy, John, who was hands down the best dancer I have ever seen. The scene was pretty hilarious. 

Much more soon.

A few pics from bihar

For mama and uncle paco....

Okay FINE!! Another post.

( I'm so sorry it took me so long!)

A week ago I made it back to New Delhi after 3 hours in an all terrain vehicle, 23 hours in a crazy indian train, and a 45 minute tuktuk ride across the city. It was wonderful to be back. However, I had to start processing all I had seen in Bihar. Here is some of what precipitated:

The poverty was, again, unreal. It wasn't the tragically beautiful pastoral living that we westerners like to see in National Geographic on the coffee table. It was just straight up destitution. Apne Aap has established a program in Forbesganj, a mid-sized town, where a community belonging to the Nutt tribe has settled. The Nutt tribe is one of these heart-wrenching examples of marginalization and stigmatization at the hands of an unforgiving caste system, exacerbated by colonialism. A tribe that was originally known for its herbal healing powers, snake charming and other quasi-mystic and nomadic traditions has been entrenched in poverty and inter-generational prostitution for decades. 

I lived in Ruchira (my boss)'s house (her ancestors were from Forbesganj (but they were not Nutts) and were very successful merchants, thus I got to live in their old compound). There is an adorable Nepalese family that cares for the grounds and cooks for the house (and the food was out. of. this. world.) Tinku, the head of the program, lived with me in the house. She absolutely amazed me in every way. We staid up until 10 or 11 most nights talking about the community, the problems, and the amazing resilience of the women we met.

My first interview was a group discussion. About 10 women attended. One of them was a 15 year old girl, about 8 months pregnant. We sat in a circle in a little community house that they had built for Apne Aap at the edge of the red-light district. At first the women were confused at the questions, wondering why I was doing this research in the first place. After I explained (and Tinku translated), they began to open up. I was shocked. The hospital turns them away. They don't know if the local midwife has any sort of degree or certificate. They have no power of choice: marriage or prostitution, kids or no kids. They spoke of being forced to have children. They spoke of being forced to have abortions. My journalist-roommate Sarah had given me advice about interviews: be a vessel. Just take it all in...I didn't think it would ever be this hard. 

I can't possibly write about all of the interviews here. But a couple of them must be mentioned. One of them was with Fatima. Only a couple years older than myself, she has 5 kids. She was married at age 12 and had her first child within that year. The interview was helpful, and at the end I told her that she could ask me any questions she had. She had many: "Where is your husband?" "How were you allowed to come to India?" "What will this research do?". I tried to explain everything as best I could. After I finished, she looked really sad. I asked the translator to ask her why she was sad. Fatima told me that it was because she will never have these opportunities. She can't move. She can't go anywhere. I didn't know what to say. There was this terrible pause with the ceiling fan as the only sound filling the room. I grabbed her hand and tried to explain that that was why Apne Aap was here. Women in Forbesganj should have the same opportunities.  That was why we were working so hard. She smiled. As we were leaving she wouldn't let go of my hand...except to spin me around and take the elastic that was holding my hair back in a tight bun. She showed all the women what I looked like with my hair down and they came over, giggling and chattering in Hindi. 

When Tinku had to go to New Delhi, my translator was Kalam. Kalam is from the Nutt community here. He is the first and only college graduate they have ever had. 4 of his 5 sisters were prostituted in order to save the family from starvation. As soon as he graduated he built a house away from the red-light district and took all his sisters away from this work. When he showed me the house he had the biggest smile "My dream house" he said. It was just a tiny one floor house, still under construction, but he was so so proud of it. The heartbreaking part of the story is the fact that his brothers still live off of prostitution. They prostitute women and support themselves on the women's earnings. I did a (partial) interview with one of the brother's prostitutes at her hut in the red-light district. While we had lunch with her and tried to do the interview, the woman who lived in the adjoining hut (no older than me) saw her clients. 

I can't say enough about Kalam. He spent hours trying to explain to me in the best English he could muster about what it is like to be deemed an "untouchable". It was heartbreaking. I finally began to understand how stigma can be such a huge factor in the economic depression of this community. And it was so personal. He explained that his latest experience with stigma is that his girlfriend won't marry him because he is from the Nutt tribe. He is one of the most successful men in 100 mile radius of this village, but because he belongs to this tribe she refuses to marry him. 

I did an interview with a woman named Meena. She had left prostitution a few years ago. However, after she got out, the traffickers had held her daughter hostage and had begun to traffick her. Apne Aap did an intervention (essentially a brothel raid). It became clear that Kalam's family and friends were involved in the trafficking of this girl. They asked Kalam to step in and help. He did. He was stabbed in the ensuing conflict. They rescued Meena's daughter.

I took a trip to a neighboring village that Apne Aap had just begun to work with. The Nutt community in Khavaspur (the village) is also heavily  involved in intergenerational prostitution. As Kalam and I were leaving Khavaspur, he explained that the "criminals" or "traffickers" had been some of the men that were staring at us doing the interview, which is why more women didn't come to the discussion. 

After reading through this, I realize it must seem so incredibly depressing. Though it was hard, there were some very very happy moments. I know the word "hope" inevitably has an Obama-context at this point, but the best way I can explain the one redeeming feature of all these tragic stories is that every single woman has indomitable hope. Hope for their kids. Hope for their families. Hope for themselves. When I had the women sign consent forms at the group meeting (for me to use their interviews), they were all giggles writing their names. Tinku explained that many of them had just learned how. They were so proud. And I don't think I've ever been prouder.

I am going to try to post pictures from Bihar as well as some updates from Delhi.

Thanks to everyone for the emails. I miss you all so so so much.
More soon.