Tag Archives: women

Village Hindi and Leprosy Vocations

I learn about leprosy, enter a biblical world, and chalk up greetings with village women; I meet mechanics and woodworkers, seamstresses and PowerPoint pupils, radiant wrinkles, springing physio, and biochemical remembrance.

My great Auntie Maisie was effectively my third grandmother and spent her life serving The Leprosy Mission (TLM – see leprosymission.org.nz).  My sister and I often stayed at her house in Christchurch during school holidays.  It was full of dolls and puppies and teddy bears, crocheted baby booties and sweaters she’d knitted, scones and cakes and jars of marmalade, all made for the annual fundraising fair.  In her china cabinet were carved elephants and alligators, paintings of women in saris on dried leaves, small brass sculptures and lamps – souvenirs from countries like India and Indonesia where she’d visited Leprosy Mission work.  Her slides and prints caught my imagination.  I was delighted at the opportunity to follow in Auntie Maisie’s footsteps a little and visit the Leprosy Mission myself this year.

A TLM worker picked me up from my guesthouse in Lucknow.  We drove east to the small town of Barabanki where TLM staff placed a floral wreath around my neck in welcome.  An outpatient hospital was founded here around 1968 and now sees on average 250 patients per day.  Around 30% have leprosy, with other conditions also treated or referred.

Over half a million people are still newly diagnosed with leprosy every year, making one new case every two minutes, with over 5 million families affected, mostly in developing countries.  Leprosy is far less infectious than most people fear – it can’t be caught by shaking hands – and is curable with inexpensive drugs in 6 to 12 months if treated in time.  Its social stigma in India has decreased, said a doctor, but many still report it too late to prevent irreversible damage.  He said that Muslim women are often the worst as skin disease isn’t noticed with their bodies fully covered.

village-cowsIn recent decades TLM has expanded beyond medical work.  I was taken to see their Women’s Empowerment Programme in two villages.  The first had a population of 916, with 153 school-aged children.  I was told the other had 500 people and 300 cows.  I climbed out of the air-conditioned jeep and felt like I’d stepped into a Christmas nativity scene, or a Sunday School picture of Ruth gathering grain in the fields.  What I’d glimpsed from train windows (see here), I now viewed close up.

Huts with thatched roofs and mud or straw walls.  Wealthier houses of brick.  Black cows with bony butts roped to stakes, some calves, only a few dogs.  Deep brick-walled wells.  Hand-cranked iron wheels with blades to cut stalks that were then tied in bundles and stacked in golden piles.  Villagers threshing grain and stalks with tiny mustard seeds that reminded me of Gospel parables.  Most people were sociable, some were shy; a few women pulled saris over their faces when I passed.  Children were curious; one lad waved a plastic gun making laser sounds.  No one was in any way grasping or wanted anything from me all day!  What a contrast to the cities.  A few bikes and diesel-powered machines.  The weather was very dry so the air a bit dusty, but it was bliss after weeks of urban congestion – both vehicular and nasal.

Cow dung is dried for fuel just as I saw from trains and as happened in Bible times (see Ezekiel 4:15), or prepared in TLM vermin compost pits before spreading on the fields to improve crop yield.  TLM has built several brick toilets for villagers who struggle to go in the fields, like a blind boy and a lame woman.  Maybe they’d been forewarned that a foreigner was visiting, but these were almost the cleanest loos I’ve seen in India!  Hand-pumped water for washing.  A guy charged his phone with a cable on a mains power pole.

womens-empowerment-programIn a concrete community hall, two dozen women waited patiently on a blue tarpaulin.  All wore clean beautiful saris.  A few men and boys leant against the walls, while the staff and I sat on chairs or a rope mattress.  I was greeted with two more floral wreaths, and had my best Hindi experience yet.  I introduced myself and tried to ask questions; TLM staff clarified my words and translated the women’s replies.  Until recently, most were fully illiterate.  Having learnt to read street signs, some are now confident enough to venture outside their village for the first time.  Some of the most educated women have written symptoms of leprosy on walls, alongside TLM’s logo of Jesus embracing a leper.  Several villagers have read these signs, diagnosed themselves, and reported to hospital in time for treatment.

The women filed up to chalk their names on the blackboard: Sangeeta, Sunita, Shrikanti.  Some proudly wrote their whole address, or added up a simple sum.  It occurred to me that I could join in.  After quietly confirming the spelling, I grasped the chalk and wrote in Hindi, “Hello.  My name is David.”  Such fun!  We come from different worlds, they are native speakers and I just know a few phrases, yet we can both only stumblingly, messily write the script.  I think I was maybe better.  Already having the concept of letters and the motor control in my fingers, I just had to change the font.  The surprising human connection was a highlight of my trip and I went to bed buzzing that night.

I asked their favourite time of year and they said Holi, for new clean clothes as well as the colours.  (In my experience clothes didn’t stay clean for long at this festival: read about my Delhi Holi here)  The hardest time of year is the rainy season, when thatched huts leak.  That’s a contrast to city-dwellers who long for the rains to cool the scorching summer.  The women and girls sang for me: folk tunes honouring one’s mother, devotional songs to their gods, easily remembered ditties about vaccination.  TLM also performs street plays and puppet shows to teach about disease prevention and child care.  As we left I gave the wreaths to two girls who’d sung.

I’d heard that educating women or girls is the most effective means to fight poverty – for example, read the article “One solution to many problems: Educate girls” by Shashi Tharoor.  The TLM work here was a living illustration.

village-folkYesterday we drove for two hours to a larger TLM complex in Faizabad.  They’re doing fantastic stuff here, but the recession has reduced Western funding, and the crooked state government doesn’t help.  They have 8 hours of power on a good day and diesel for generators isn’t cheap.  When I asked whether things might improve under the new government, they appeared optimistic.

I spent the morning meeting students from leprosy-affected families at the Vocational Training Center, which was founded in 1992.  A poster read,

All we teach them is self-reliance.  Look how God makes their lives productive.  They can sew, they can sow, they can reap.  They can spin, they can learn, they can teach.  They can fix almost anything and have great selling skills too…

I saw the evidence.  Boys in blue overalls were learning to repair car engines, or TVs and phones, or refrigeration systems, with posters of the physics on the walls.  Woodwork pupils construct beds and cupboards, some for outside contracts, and metal work students repair insect mesh.  An old man was spinning thread to be woven into cloth.  Girls in tidy red-checked uniforms sewed stuffed rabbits and dogs, kids’ clothing and bags – the sort of things Auntie Maisie used to make back home, though here they used pedal-powered machines.

Another class of girls was learning computer skills and showed me the PowerPoint slides they’d made of friends and movie stars.  Their course builds up to simple programming in C.  After lunch we visited a craft fair where the TLM girls had a stall displaying their sewing.  They borrowed my camera to photograph each other with me – now I’ve got some teenage girl fans here too!

joyful-leprosy-patientIn a home of thirty elderly men there were radiant smiles as they clasped my hands between their gnarled fingers.  A blind man sitting cross-legged on his bed seemed profoundly content.  Another with missing teeth and shirt stained with the oil that treats his skin jumped up with a shining face to sing me two choruses.  I didn’t get much beyond a few words like “Jesus” or “love”, but it didn’t take much to see his joy.  Although crippled and owning almost nothing, with little more to do than sit and talk and grow onions in their garden plot, they were richer in gratitude and happiness than most of us who have so much more.

The Faizabad hospital was established in 1938 and I had a little tour.  In the physio ward patients held up their hands.  Some were clawed, awaiting surgery; other patients were post-op and could straighten their fingers.  They demonstrated their rehabilitation exercises of compressing springs and picking up blocks or beads.  Many return to work and quickly damage themselves because they have lost sensation in their limbs.  Before they leave they are taught to protect themselves by wrapping sharp or hot implements in cloth, and are given leather sandals with custom insoles.

leprosy-physiotherapyThe doctor said some don’t finish their course of medication and in the past the hospital sent postcard reminders, but is switching to text messages as most patients know someone with a phone.  In the biochemical testing lab, a diagram of blood cell development was flanked by photos of G Armauer Hansen, who discovered mycobacterium lepra in 1875, and a classic painting of Jesus that I’ve seen throughout India (see here).  The same picture used to hang above my holiday bed in Auntie Maisie’s spare room.

leprosy-hospital-posters

Rioting Colour: Movies and Mayhem on Holi

I’m bombarded by colourful threats and left red-faced; I’m rejected by Bollywood but star in cricket; I meet a pimp and hot chicks, pink drunks and purple pups.

Today was International Women’s Day.  Newspaper articles honoured female Indian leaders and deplored on-going problems.  A recent Hindustan Times survey found 91% of Delhi women have experienced sexual harassment, which Indians euphemistically call Eve-teasing.  Two thirds of women find public transport unsafe, few have complained to police and nearly three-quarters who do have found them unhelpful.

Today was also Holi, the Indian festival of colours that celebrates the start of spring.  Over the last few days street stalls sold vibrant packets of powders and dyes, and all manner of water pistols.  Plastic pipe-and-plungers were built like the bamboo rods I saw in an 18th-century painting of Holi.  “Machine guns” hold 6 litres of ammunition.  Figurines pee spray when pressed.  I read of upper-class parties with swimming pools of coloured water.

holi-colors-marketNewspapers exhorted dye-fighters to purchase safe organic colours, not cheaper industrial dyes – made from nice substances like lead, mercury, asbestos or other toxins – that may permanently stain clothing, damage skin, hinder breathing, cause poisoning or even blindness: that charming glitter comes from powdered glass.  My SpiceJet magazine showed how to make your own eco-friendly colours from natural substances.  Crush black grapes and tomatoes for purple and red, dry and crush Marigold and Jacaranda petals for yellow and blue, mix henna powder with spinach paste for green.  It recommended smearing face and hair with coconut oil or petroleum jelly to protect your skin.  Papers carried big adverts for washing powder.

The Hindustan Times said laws against psychoactive drugs are relaxed at Holi and warned against overdosing on sweets and drinks containing cannabis bhang.  It also warned of eye injury from high-speed balloons: don’t try to clean your eye as contaminated water can cause infection, but just shut it tight and rush to the nearest hospital.  I visited a Toastmasters club the night before Holi and heard more tales of wild intoxication.  One speaker feared the hazardous holiday and planned to stay at home.  After all this build-up, I faced the big day with both anticipation and trepidation.

At my hotel breakfast this morning, two enthusiastic American women had already smeared each other and were keen to initiate others.  I consented and sallied into the fray with reddened hair, cheeks, beard and shirt.  Countless cheerful “happy Holi!” greetings from locals delighted to see a foreigner participating.  Now and then a guy gently topped up my smears with red powder, which I’d read was the most safe and wash-outable.

Everything was closed for the public holiday and the metro didn’t run until the afternoon when most of the action is over, so I wasn’t sure what to do.  An auto-rickshaw driver offered a lift into town at a dirt cheap rate.  As his first customer of the day, he smiled, I’d bring good luck.  I’ve heard this line before and, as I suspected, he took me for a ride all the way to his mate’s emporium.  I refused to enter and endure high-pressure sales tactics, thanked him for the ride, consulted my compass and headed for Connaught Place.  I’d retreated in defeat on my first night (see here) so thought I’d take it back by day.

The circle was almost deserted.  Then a man darted across the road in desperation, dodged oncoming cars and leaped into a moving bus.  “Cut!”  The vehicles reversed a block, and then it all happened again.  The film crew waved me away – the fools didn’t want a skinny kiwi in red sunhat to grace their Bollywood blockbuster, although teenage guys take photos with me everywhere I go: I must be a Hindi Facebook sensation!

I joined the assorted spectators, their clothes blotched in assorted colours.  Another ear cleaner approached, cotton buds stuck in cap, and flourished a note book of references from satisfied customers.  He even had one from NZ.  He was eager to investigate my otological condition – “No touch, just looking!” – but I was having none of that.

holi-colorsOn a corner by my local metro station between drink-vending carts is a tiny mosque you’d almost miss if you blinked.  I popped in after the Bollywood action and 8 Muslim boys befriended me.  They were 10-13 years old and live here to study the Koran.  Good Muslims don’t participate in Holi so they were bored and enjoyed my broken Hindi attempts to chat.  Then I was ushered out to the parking lot behind the Metro, given a bat-shaped plank and placed before a concrete slab with stones balanced on top for bails.  The lads cheered valiantly when I finally hit the tennis ball before it hit my wicket.

My friendliest Hindi experience yet was followed by the worst.  A dozing guy hailed me as I farewelled the lads.  After greeting him I clumsily asked, “Do you have boys and girls?”  Most people are proud of their offspring.  When I asked the rickshaw driver the same question that morning, he had happily enumerated the ages of his kids.  This guy’s response seemed to be different.  I shook my head in puzzlement and he resorted to a visual aid.  Curling one hand into a loose fist, he thrust his other index finger in and out.  It dawned on me that he was offering a youngster for less savoury pursuits than cricket.

I played the dumb foreigner – no comprendo – and escaped to the metro, now open, and sped off to another market for the afternoon.  One courtyard was lined with cages of live chickens and boiling pots of dead ones.  The ground was covered in carcasses, blood, feathers and flies.  I was tired and hungry but scenes like this made me unsure what was safe to eat.  I found a small general store and bought a pack of digestive biscuits and another of chips.  So many of the highs and the lows in India revolve around the stomach and food.  Sometimes I eat like a king, with a bottomless delicious platter for three dollars; sometimes I spend the day in a fascinatingly aromatic market where all visible fodder swarms with flies and I’m forced to fast.  Perhaps that’s appropriate in Lent.

In the market maze I saw statues of Shiva and Krishna.  These gods mostly have blue bodies, which was most fitting for Holi.  I was still coloured red and amiable drunks with pink hair and lurid faces shook my hand.  Bright splotches on the footpath marked the scene of morning bombardments.  The streets were roamed by green and purple dogs.

Sati and IT: Social Stats and the Bangalore Boom

Mobile phones and infant mortality, American call centres and drought-dead farmers, software outsourcing and burning wives: ironies of India’s growth.

Several classes of the course introduced socioeconomic issues.  In 1991 the Indian economy nearly collapsed when the Gulf War drove oil prices up.  This forced rapid liberalisation, privatisation and globalisation, which led to dramatic growth.  Standout stats I’ve heard: from 1991 to 2006, foreign reserve increased from US$1.5 million to $220 billion, and annual software exports grew from US$150 million to over $31 billion.  From 1997 to 2007, Telecom subscribers increased from 15 to 225 million.  From 2000 to 2005, mobile phone users grew from 3 million to over 100 million.

These figures are impressive, making India one of the emerging BRIC economies (Brazil, Russia, India, China), but India’s social problems remain huge.  “India’s economy offers a schizophrenic glimpse of a high-tech 21st century future amid a distressingly mediaeval past” (Edward Luce, 2006).  The country is still almost three-quarters rural.  Villagers often struggle to survive and over 10,000 drought-stricken farmers commit suicide annually (see Wikipedia here).  India has an average life expectancy of 63 years, 5.7% infant mortality, and 46% of kids under three years old are underweight – one million die of diarrhoea every year.

Living standards for the poor are increasing, but not as fast as for the rich, so the gap is growing.  In 1991 there was a single TV station.  In 2006 there were more than 150, bombarding the disadvantaged with advertising images of upper-class luxuries they’ll never afford.  This can fuel resentment.  I’ve heard compound fences in some parts are growing higher.


Another lecturer praised the high role of women in the earliest Indian religion, compared to their subservient status since.  Male children are strongly preferred because the bride’s family pays a high dowry, and a son must perform the funeral rituals.  Without these the parent’s soul cannot be reincarnated and becomes a “ghost”.  Female foeticide is rife, although many hospitals refuse to do prenatal gender testing and display a “no sex determination” sign.

India has 933 women for every 1000 men.  The paper reported the Northwest state of Punjab has only 739 women, so they are bought in from other states.  A woman costs about 3000 rupees.  A buffalo costs 30,000.  Baby girls are often abandoned in parks, trains, garbage heaps.  Sikh leaders have ordered Punjab gurudwaras to place cradles at the entrance so parents could leave “those innocent children at God’s door, not death’s”.

The custom of Sati, where a good widow is expected to burn herself alive on her husband’s funeral pyre, is of course illegal, as is honour killing of women who have shamed their family by supposed immorality or bringing an inadequate dowry.  In rural areas, however, a remarkably high number of women are burned in “kitchen accidents”.


In our final class on Friday, an HR consultant talked about Bangalore’s rapid IT boom, especially since Y2K computer panic in the USA increased the need to outsource software.  Call centre workers typically work night shifts, are given English names, learn Western accents, and earn more than others, so they expect Western lifestyles ­– as seen in the many brand-name outlets lining the Bangalore’s Brigade Road (header image above).  As well as IT, many Western doctors and lawyers have their dictated notes transcribed in Bangalore.  In The World is Flat: A Brief History of the Twenty-First Century (2005) Thomas Friedman wrote:

It was somewhere between the interview with the Indian entrepreneur who wanted to do my taxes from Bangalore and the one who wanted to write my software from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to read my x-rays from Bangalore, and the one who wanted to trace my lost luggage from Bangalore…  I was realizing that, while I had been sleeping, while I had been off covering the 9/11 wars, I had missed something really fundamental in this globalization story. I had lost the thread, and I found it in Bangalore.

A few weeks ago the newspaper reported that traffic through Bangalore’s airport increased 40% over the last 12 months and that every day 500 new vehicles enter Bangalore’s streets (fewer than 963 per day in Delhi).  It wasn’t for nothing that in 2006 Prime Minister Manmohan Singh said:

Bangalore is a brand the world identifies India with. It is also the single biggest reason why India has become such a hot investment destination.

But of course this growth has a cost.  Last night in town I had to queue one hour to get an autorickshaw, which then took nearly one and a half hours to get back.  Both we and locals curse the boom time traffic!