Begining the new Year / Decade with feeling good

Source: Lavyainitiative


My Brother and the Wisdom of Mother Jones

Friday, 17 December

When I was 18, my friend Kristi gave me a bookmark inscribed with the following, “Some people come into our lives, leave footprints on our hearts, and we are never the same”. As the years have passed, I have held on to this sacred memento of a friendship that has weathered time, tragedy and tears. Almost 25 years have come and gone, and admittedly, at times, I have laughed to myself at such a simple platitude–especially during my haughty years of studying philosophy. With age, however, one seems to appreciate the simple truths more than the complicated, and cherish the people most, who write their names indelibly across our souls.

As I left for India, I was already feeling lucky. I was getting to travel with two friends I adore (yes, Jeremy and David, that means you), and I was working for a company whose mission I cherished. Each day visiting children, schools, activists and educators, I thought my heart would explode. Then came the day after my night like the Buddha (see previous post), when it almost did.

Traversing bumpy and gravel roads, I tried to keep my eyes closed. My stomach was in no mood for chaos, let alone movement. We were slated to visit a child labor rehabilitation center outside Hyderabad, in the rural area of Palamoor, about 2 hours by car. I had never craved Gatorade so badly, nor questioned the soundness of my judgement so sourly. Then came Veeru.

When presented with my itinerary, Kiran explained that I would have fellow activists/journalists/social workers joining at various points along the way. He failed to mention, however, that I would be gaining a brother. From the moment he entered the car, I was enveloped in kindness. Five of minutes of conversation, and the passion he felt for his work was palpable. We’d read the same books, followed the same social issues and political movements. I was the social worker, he was the roving ethnographer and human rights advocate, studying folklore and traditional practices. In short, he was the male, Indian version of me! Wonder Twin Powers, activate!

With a roadside stop for Oral Rehydration Salts, both my body and mood were returning to normal. By the time we reached the rehabilitation center, I felt like I had read an encyclopedia on traditional practices in Western Andhra Pradesh. As kilometers passed, Veeru held our attention with fascinating details that were counter-intuitive to what he had assumed of traditional Indian culture at the outset. Yep. Turns out we were wrong.

During our trip, we learned that the area to which we were travelling had a rich history, heavily gilded in superstition. Villages were founded and run on female-based deities, with women then playing prominent roles in their societies. Lineages of women were appointed by priests, who were then designated to become sacred prostitutes, in holy offering to the entire village. This profession was not age-based, meaning that the lineage could be made up of a range of ages/women from the same family, i.e., from great-grandma on down. Mirroring the sacred in the every day, pre-pubescent girls were considered sacred, and were invited at planting and harvest time to crush and scatter the cotton seeds, ensuring a blessed and increased season.

Though some of these practices have died out, scholars and researchers (such as Veeru) are finding additional resources to further shed light on these traditions, as the government of India recently passed its own version of the US Freedom of Information Act. For example, similar to China’s policy, yet opposite in gender, unwanted pregnancies in these societies were managed via ultrasounds, with girls being kept and boys being aborted. If the pregnancy were to go full-term with a boy-child, the mother would be summarily sent away from her village. Within this culture, STD’s are not managed/tested for, so long as the girl/woman remains outwardly healthy.

In the extreme Western provinces of AP, drinking problems have further exacerbated any of these remaining practices. As in Sardinia, the local “wine” is used in the realm of daily life, for everything from celebrations to eating to just coming home. As migration to the urban centers has become more prevalent, poverty levels in the rural districts have continued to plummet.

It is said the economy of this region now runs on “cell phones and real estate”. Cell phones are purchased by one or two individuals, who in turn, charge a fee to each person wishing to use it. Plots of family real estate once rich with cultivation, are parceled off and sold to the highest bidder, often an urban absentee landlord, waiting for Hyderabad’s development to spread westward. Under these conditions, depression and social issues soar, in turn, leading to increased alcohol consumption. Girls, once jewels of their family, are forced to drop from school and begin working, in order to ensure the family’s survival, further greasing the wheel of the child labor machine. Damned if you, damned if you don’t.

My notebook was filling up fast. I was reminded of that Far Side cartoon, the one with the student raising his hand and asking the teacher to be excused, simply stating, “My brain is full”. I was at a loss. In a few moments time, I would be transported to a new set of children, exposed to a new set of problems, scribbling notes again furiously. How do you make sense of such screaming inequities, knowing in your heart, that neither you, nor they asked to be born into your respective stations? For a moment, I closed my eyes. No answers came, only the wisdom of Mother Jones: “Pray for the dead, fight like hell for the living”.

I opened my eyes, and stepped from the car. I was going into battle, but I was armed with my brother.

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