Indeed, this week did hold surprises I could not have possibly foreseen. Most of Monday was humdrum, with a day of writing and a trip to Big Bazaar.
As we walked back, the sun was setting, the temperature dropping, and I was thinking about how my daily journal entry was going to be a bit bland. However, on arriving back at Sector A, Pocket A, Surinder’s face popped up overtop of the walking park fence.
She showed me the gorgeous henna she’d just had done and told me that there was a woman further down the driveway painting for 150 rupees per hand (200 rupees for me with my ‘amazing’ bartering skills). She explained that tomorrow was Karva Chauth, a special day for married women in Northern India. It would be a day to fast for your husband’s long life and to get dressed up – including getting henna – for a ceremony with other fasting women.
At first I just wanted to get henna for the aesthetic of it, but quickly found that, as a cultural outsider, I was not comfortable participating in only the enjoyable part of the festival. Henna painting was creating somewhat of a neighbourhood gathering and, as I got into conversation with some of the women, I soon was asked if I would be keeping the fast. “Yes! I am!” Although I had already reconciled the festival practice of fasting with my Christian faith, my affirmative answer still surprised both me and them as it slipped out of my mouth. Once it was out, I had to do it. It was only after I agreed that I timidly asked the woman beside me what the fast actually involves. A married woman wakes up at 4am on the morning of Karva Chauth to eat. Then, from sunrise to moonrise, she does not eat or drink a thing. At 4pm, dressed up beautifully, she meets the other neighbourhood women for puja, an offering ceremony, where fruits and prayers are offered to Lord Karva. When the moon rises around 9pm, she performs a short ceremony and her fast is over. So after some 4am Nutella, I fell asleep praying to Jesus that Kyle would live a long and healthy life.
The next day I dressed up in a yellow, flowy, Indian dress, accented with bright pink bangles, did my hair and makeup, spent my time expending as little energy as possible, and prayed every time my growling stomach and parched mouth insisted I should. Time ticked away slowly until 4pm when I followed a woman in a sparkling sari to an outdoor area where a red carpet had been laid down and women were sitting cross-legged, forming a circle. I sat with a friend I had met while having henna done, and we intently watched the ceremony take place. On arrival , women placed an offering of fruit in the middle of the circle. Then the officiant told the story of Karva Chauth, in Hindi, in four parts. Between each part, participants passed thalis (metal plates) containing food and a candle around the circle and sang a beautiful song all the while. This lasted about 45 minutes or so, and ended with an abundance of love and hugs among friends.
I felt so fortunate to be counted as a friend. I met many delightful women after puja that day and the women of one family warmly invited me into their home where we shared banana-cashew-almond smoothies (our little secret) and a couple hours of friendly conversation. The last few hours without water were exceedingly difficult but not without reward. I took Surinder up on her offer to perform the ceremony at moonrise together, thanking God for Kyle and for an amazing cultural opportunity, and since then our relationship with her and Thapa has been even more relaxed and friendly.
The next day was about business. In the morning, after ravenously consuming three or four parathas, we took an auto to the Foreign Residents Registration Office and got our necessary paperwork done so that we can stay and so that we can leave.
In the afternoon I tried out the ‘women’s only’ Metro carriage and met two women, Eunice and Sarah, from the New Generation Trust, a Christian NGO. New Generation Trust does humanitarian work in South Delhi.
There is one project of particular interest to both Sarah and I. Sarah has been in the process of creating an employment project called Dignity Preserves, where women who are currently in prostitution would be given alternative employment, producing pickles and chutneys to be sold in stores. However, the project has been running into barriers involving questions of quality requirements and the need for a bit of R&D. New Generation has been praying that a food technologist would come along. How surprised they must have been, then, to receive my CV, which outlines my experience working with food quality programs! I was amazed, as well, that my employment background, which I did not think could be an asset to my volunteer work, couldpotentially be put to good use.
Eunice called the next morning as I was pouring over the Indian Food Act, asking if I could work the day in one of the schools. Feeling nervous about not having teacher training, I pushed through the hopeful hoard of auto drivers at the Saket Metro Station and met Eunice, who led me through a rabbit warren of bustling dirt alleyways, lined with shops and pock marked with water-filled holes, through a set of wrought iron doors and into the crowded, little school. A wall of noise hit me as I entered the school and the air was filled with the children’s energy, creativity and a whole lot of dust.
While I had forced myself to meet the day with a facade of confidence in the role of a teacher with hopes that the facade would transition into real confidence, the facade quickly crumbled to reveal my teary-eyed insecurity. While I recognize and appreciate the uncompromisable importance of education, teaching has never been a strength or an interest of mine and I was being thrown into the full swing of it, entirely unprepared and out of my element. Furthermore, I had not realized that I wouldbe expected to spend the majority of my weeks in the school. Learning of this change of plans – or possibly my misunderstanding of plans – left me completely overwhelmed.
Even so, I found the children adorable and sweet. They call their female teachers ‘Didi’ (big sister), which I find delightful as ‘Dee Dee’ has been a fond nickname of mine. At one point I entered the classroom for the youngest children and I was met with a chorus of high pitched voices singing, “Hi, Didi! Hi Didi!” and as I left, “Bye, Didi! Bye Didi!”
After lunch I was whisked away to a home placement for four girls, two of whom are HIV positive. I was happy to watch the girls in order to give their home-mother, Soni, a break so she could paint candles for Diwali and do housework. I enjoyed having a chai party with two of the girls, holding and hugging a six-year-old who cannot speak or walk, and helping the newest little recruit get comfortable in her new environment. By showing her how to high-five, she warmed up from somber curiosity to smiling and giggling until, later on, she was maybe too comfortable as she wouldn’t stop climbing the outside bannister and screaming her own name repeatedly.
That night after making freezer-burnt hash-browns, I called Eunice to explain that teaching really is not my strong-suit and I would rather focus on the Dignity Preserves project, if I could.
The next day I spent an enjoyable morning working with Sarah in the Dignity Preserves kitchen determiningwhat needs to be done to get their product on the shelves. All my lofty plans of sanitation logs, certificates of analysis, and vendor approval were quickly dashed as I learned that to sell product in India, all you need is a food license. Dignity Preserves has a food license, so it seems now to be a matter of amending their product labels and determining what customers would want. Beyond that, we will be working on improving the products.
My chest tightened to learn that while afternoons would be spent with Dignity Preserves, mornings would be spent teaching in the school from 9am-2pm, and the requisite lesson planning would fill the evenings. I discussed with the head teacher that afternoon her wide-ranging ideas for my lessons and was overwhelmed with frustration at how naturally teaching ideas and methods come to her and not at all to me. My evening with Kyle was thus filled with tears and takeout.
That night I got sick. At this time of year, the mixture of farmers burning paddy straw in neighbouring states, the temperature dropping, no wind, and car pollution creates a thick blanket of smog in Delhi. It is so thick that the buildings across the street look hazy. A lot of people get sick from it.
Kyle and I went out on Saturday night despite my cold. It was the annual Sector A, Pocket A Diwali mela (fair). We were struck by the beauty of our whole walking park covered in beautiful, twinkling Christmas lights with huge, clear lightbulbs strung between stalls of vendors selling silk saris, jewellery, and dishes. We purchased three hand-painted candle holders for Diwali, one decorated with a woman’s face, another with a man’s face (to keep her company), and one with little, green autos.
We enjoyed tikka paneer on toothpicks, watched cute kids perform poetry and dance, and played a round of Tambola (Bingo). The colony had hired a professional Tambola caller who calmly and clearly called the numbers: “nice legs, one and one, eleven”, or “independence, four and seven, forty-seven”.
Most enjoyable was the chance to reunite with friends from Tuesday’s puja and to introduce them to Kyle. One friend, Nisha, assured Kyle that his life would be extended an extra ten years due to my effort. She seemed shocked that I kept the strict fast and said that only the older generations do that nowadays; she always has water and fruit during the day. I was reminded by my neighbours that I should come spend time with them in their homes, where they would teach me Hindi and how to cook Indian food.
After the weekend of wondering what to do about the school situation (if you want to volunteer in Delhi, does it have to be in a school?), the mela helped solidify my decision to cut back my hours with New Generation Trust, to focus primarily on the Dignity Preserves project, tutoring a girl in social sciences, and helping in Soni’s home when needed. The rest of the time I can dedicate to my neighbours, building meaningful relationships right here in our own colony.