“Didi, I am not ashamed to be a wallah. You should not be ashamed to ride in my rickshaw.” I stared at the man who had introduced himself as Roju. He was thin and barefoot. I am a tall, white woman perfectly capable of walking. The idea of being pulled through the streets in his hand rickshaw felt too colonial, too awful, too politically incorrect.
Viewed as an oppressive legacy of the British Raj era of India’s history, hand rickshaws were banned by the Indian government in 2006. The wallahs in Kolkata banned together in a union called the All Bengal Rickshaw Union conducting protests and strikes to preserve the only form of work many of them felt they could do. Kolkata is the only place in the country where hand rickshaws are allowed to operate, but no licenses for new drivers have been issued since 2006 effectively phasing out the profession.
Its incredibly hard work that makes very little money for the drivers as motorized tuk tuks and pedi-cabs have taken their place. Even in the busy tourist area of Sudder Street, rickshaw drivers only earn about 120 rupees a day (the equivalent of about $2.00 USD). Most of them rent their rickshaw for 60 rupees a day so they net $1.00 USD daily to support themselves and their families. Many of them left their families in impoverished villages and sleep in the streets of Kolkata in order to send money home. Roju wanted only 50 rupees (less than a dollar) for transporting me. I’d been regularly seeing well fed tourists negotiating with pullers to take them on the same route for half that amount and then piling two of them into the rickshaw.
I relented. How could I deny Roju an income? I insisted on paying far more than he wanted to take me to work each morning during my week of volunteering in Kolkata. Gradually I learned to be less terrified as he darted through the crush of traffic madly ringing the wallah tool of the trade, a small finger bell. How anyone could hear the bell tinkling over the incessant honking of car horns was a puzzle.
On my last day Roju insisted on a tour of the warren of tiny markets in central Kolkata. We passed through the meat butchering market, the art market and the fruit and vegetable market on roads so narrow I could touch the severed goat heads. He stopped to treat me to tea with his fellow wallahs. All of them said they’d never done any other kind of work. They’re afraid of losing the only source of income they have if the government continues to discourage the profession. They also serve as the only mode of transporation the people living in India’s slums can afford.
At the end of our tour, Roju presented me with his hand bell for riding with him each day. I had learned to not be ashamed of how it all looked and to keep my eyes open during those insanely chaotic intersection crossings. He had steady work for the week paid at far more than the going rate and served as tour guide to a world I would have missed. And more importantly we had each made a friend.
The final week of my month of humanitarian work with The India Group in India is coming to an end. I’ve found it difficult to write about an experience and place so dramatically different than my other travels. Just when I think I have something profound to say – a conclusion I’ve reached, a reaction to an experience, a sight to describe – I’m confronted by an event that causes me to rethink it. The poverty in India is extreme and our project works directly with impoverished families from the lower castes in three different cities: Delhi, Varanasi and Khujuraho. I thought I’d seen the worst conditions in our work there, but this week we’re in Kolkata where the living situation in its slums is so bad I’ve been forced to hit the reset button on my understanding about everything. Its going to take some time to process and so I’m going to stick with a topic where I’m more grounded thats been the focus of my work here – education.
The India Group’s mission is to provide education for all of the children and healthcare for everyone in 11 large families in three cities: Delhi, Varanasi and Khajuraho. In order to be supported by the project the parents (in particular the fathers) must commit to educating all of their children including their daughters through the 12th grade. None of the parents attended school beyond grade 4 and most never attended at all which means they need to take a leap of faith and envision a future for their children that defies their own experience. Because they never went to school, what happens there is a mystery to them. They also need to be willing to defy cultural and economic norms which encourage them to not educate their daughters; instead marrying them at a young age, a practice still common in lower caste impoverished families.
We spent a lot of time in schools while here, checking in with the teachers of our students seeing how they were doing. India’s public school system is dramatically underfunded with class sizes of over 50 in many so the project pays for private school tuition, books, uniforms and transportation along with a tutor for every child. Additionally we began to consider what the next steps might be for the oldest student in the program who will be graduating next year and for the teenage daughters who have never attended school but need to learn a marketable skill that doesn’t require reading or math skills since adult literacy programs are non-existent where they live.
My final week in India is being spent as a volunteer in a Mother Teresa home for children with cerebral palsy. India has a much higher rate of the disease than the worldwide average because of poor maternal nutrition and the incidence of diseases like meningitis after birth. The children living in the home have mostly been abandoned by families unable to care for them. It was surprising to see so many international volunteers who spend a week as I am or much longer. Many return annually. And I’ve been glad to see an educational program of sorts for the children living there.
India is a predominately Hindu country and Saraswati is the Hindu goddess of knowledge, the arts and education. An image of her presides in many of the schools we visited and her festival occured while I was in Varanasi. Its a raucous affair involving students parading Saraswati statues through the streets with firecrackers to celebrate knowledge and learning. Each neighborhood built its own Sawaswati statue so we saw her riding in the backs of pickup trucks, on top of tuk tuks and in the middle of the most desperate of living conditions.
I thought I was ready. I’d read the guidebook, some history (though not much sunk in without the context of being there), travel blogs and gotten a lot of advice from friends who traveled there previously. Intellectualizing India, particularly when one is there on a humanitarian mission, does little to prepare you for the real thing.
It began with my airplane descent into Delhi through a smog layer so thick the normal visual cues of a descent (skyline, runway lights) were invsible. Delhi has recently been designated the most polluted city in the world.
However, the pilot took pains to assure us over the loudspeaker that the conditions were milder than normal; our landing would be safely completed. My fellow passengers, most of them Indian, began pulling down jackets out of their luggage as the plane taxied to a stop and I knew immediately that my packing had underestimated the weather. Note to self: guidebooks do not take into account global warming changes in that chapter about weather.
My immersion into the work of The India Group humanitarian project began immediately at the Delhi Airport after a 24 hour sleepless flight. We work with Hindu families of one of India’s lowest castes, the farming caste and one struggling family of Sikhs. I sponsor Amandeep, the only child of the Sikh family and it was his father and another father in the project who could translate who met me at the airport and got me to my lodging in downtown Delhi
Since I arrived two days earlier than the rest of the team it gave me a chance to meet Amandeep and his mother and to be given a tour of Delhi’s largest Sikh temple with them and a basic understanding of their religion. The temple is a beautiful white marble complex. Despite all of it’s oppulence, it is a place of refuge for Sikhs and vistors who wish to live on the temple grounds for some time.
Langar is the Sikh practice of having a large kitchen staffed by volunteers that feeds all visitors no matter what their religion. In the Delhi temple only vegetarian food is served to honor the beliefs of other religions allowing everyone to eat as equals. The Gurdwara is the eating hall and volunteers were serving hundreds of people at a time while hundreds sat patiently outside the Gurdwara waiting their turn.