Imagine living with me. Dealing with all my hilarious (and ridiculous) habits, clumsiness, silly humor and non-stop energy. That’s what it is like living with Ali. I’m living with my identical, 5 foot, twin. The only downside is no one stops you from eating too many cookies in the morning and from sticking your finger in the Nutella jar.
I hadn’t realized how much I’d already adapted to living in rural India until more foreigners began to ask me how long I’d been in Gajner and were surprised when I responded with four weeks. I act like I’ve been living here for years, having already integrated into the community and gotten to know many locals on a personal level whether they know my language or not. Some how I’ve found a way to communicate and build a relationship with almost everyone. Even the shopkeepers and I have a good thing going. The ‘milk shop’ has a bag set aside for me in the morning when I greet him around 9:30am with my 20 rupees and Faroq, the owner of the shop next door, is already taking the cashew nut cookies off the shelf when he sees my hair come bouncing around the corner to say good morning everyday. I laughed at myself the other day when I ran back into the house after realizing I was wearing a strapless dress and forgot to put a shawl on.How dare I show my shoulders!
One beautiful and warm morning before heading over to the DD community, Ali and I sat out near the lake to check out the view of the city palace. We stretched out on the pavement and soaked up the sun. She pulled out two packets of paan masala and made me extend my hand to try some. Paan masala is a flavored type of tobacco you’ll find many locals chewing on. B, the program manager of the organization, doesn’t want us buying it in Gajner as it isn’t a good look for women to drink alcohol and chew tobacco, especially in a small village, so Ali had purchased it in the south back in December when she was on vacation. The instant we put the handful of tiny seeds and sticks in our mouths, we began to gag. It is seriously disgusting. It tastes like a mix of liquorice and dirt. We spat for a good 10 minutes until our mouths were dry and then chugged a bottle of water each. That was the beginning and the end of our paan masala days.
Over the past week and a half, Ali and I have really mastered the art of chapatti and are on our way to full Indian cooking with the help of Margaret, one of the senior interns living in Punjab, who has been staying with us for the past week and a half helping us prepare for the quarterly meeting. Our dinners (mostly thanks to Margaret) have been delicious dishes of jeera rice, dal (lentils), aloo (potato), gobi (cauliflower) and big fruit salads that I’ve been making that are just incredible with all the fresh fruit we have available (and necessary to balance all the cookies we ingest in the morning).
The quarterly meeting, that took place here in Gajner this past week, hosted all the interns working for the organization. It was five days of activities, project sharing and project management courses. There are about 26 of us, including the program managers of the organization, B and Rachael, their children and Manoj who has been preparing our meals in the kitchen, and it has been seriously chaotic. There is garbage everywhere, we run out of water every afternoon and all our groceries have been devoured. They were all suppose to stay in a nearby home with about 12 rooms but due to a large wedding celebration that didn’t end until Tuesday evening, we had to pitch a last minute “tent” on the roof top to accommodate sleeping space for everyone. Although I haven’t been living here long, the arrival did give me a minor anxiety attack. Imagine 20 people suddenly barged into your home and took everything? Ali and I can’t blame them though, I’m sure its been tough on everyone, but it has been a strain on our wallets, not to mention our heart with mornings full of tears now that our precious, single jar of Nutella is now empty (which had to be purchased in Jaipur – it was such a joyous moment when I found it in a random shop).
Fortunately Ali and I, and the previous interns who have been staying here, have built some fantastic relationships with the community and were able to find some home-stays within the village. Since home-stays are really great for cross-cultural experiences, and for helping families make some spare cash, we really wanted to place people in the DD community as an experiment. Unfortunately the homes there lack toilets but because we really love the families living in DD, Ali and I volunteered to sleep there for the night, bringing senior interns along with us. While sorting out the home-stays, we were recommended to a woman named Leela who was recently elected as the representative for the DD community. B and I briefly spoke with her and thought this would be a really great opportunity for me so I could later on introduce her to some of the ideas we have for improving the community. We were so wrong. Because someone in the community referred us to her, we were expecting her to be a respectful woman, excited to share ideas and work together. When Hanh, a hilarious senior intern from Vietnam, and myself showed up on her doorstep after dinner that night, we were instantly given bad vibes. We sat with Leela's son first to help make chapatti and chai then were asked to take a seat in main room/bedroom with her, her husband and their grandson who was fast asleep. Her husband was drinking wine and Leela began to openly drink a bottle of beer in front of us as they over and over again tried to explain in broken English that they are not poor and don’t need our help. It was quite uncomfortable, especially when we had to continuously refuse the alcohol and cigarettes they were offering us and explain what our purpose in Gajner is. We were finally getting to an ‘okay, it’s only one night’ state of mind when she forced us to dress up as Indian brides; putting makeup on us and making us take photos. Then her husband jumped in and began hugging us, and putting his face up against mine trying to kiss me. Then, he touched my breasts, twice. It was time to go. Hanh and I instantly began to pack our stuff and leave. I was surprised at how well we handled the situation. We remained calm and tried to explain why it was inappropriate and that we would have a group discussion with B involved later on. Then Leela began to block the door, not letting us leave. She took a powerful stance and slammed her fist against the metal frame. Thank goodness Hanh had her phone and got through to B. I managed to make Leela move away from the door and walked out onto the street, beginning to tear up a little as she yelled after us. It was well beyond sunset and not a single streetlight was ahead. I walked quickly into the darkness in pure shock of the entire situation. Hanh followed behind me, yelling back at the family to stop following us and to leave us be. B sped down the road and slammed on the brakes when he spotted us.
This was the first time in India that I ever felt unsafe and have personally felt the strain that many women have to face daily in India when their husbands or strange men violate or harass them in some way. I was proud of myself for the way I handled the situation and I am very thankful that Hanh was there. The two of us and B all sat down afterwards to go over how we can avoid such a situation in the future and how we can go about educating this family on why this was inappropriate behaviour. Unfortunately, it’s not all their fault. Westerners come to India and all they do is drink and party, we were just two random foreign girls coming to their home to spend the night, why would they think we were any different? It’s amazing how such a silly stereotype can affect you so personally. I’ve really learned a huge lesson from all of this. No matter how comfortable and how safe you think you are, always be cautious and don’t lend your trust so easily to those around you. Although it’s unfortunate that it happened, personally I’m glad it happened to me rather than one of the newer interns. I’m not sure if they would have been able to handle it as well and might have walked away from the situation with a very negative view of India right off the bat where as I am, and will always be, very in love with this country no matter what it may throw at me. I’ve come prepared.
As a pick me up, I decided that instead of staying at my house the following evening, I would stay with Rekha’s family, who I have grown very close to. I visit every other day bringing sweets or coming to have chai. Ali and I were even invited for lunch one afternoon and they made us all our favourites. Although conversations are still stop and go with the lack of English spoken in the household, I really love going over to their home and enjoy spending time with them. I’m grown very close to Rekha and Rekha’s sister-in-law, Saroj. Her son, Harseet, is three years old and just drools and giggles uncontrollably when I visit as we run around the house playing. Nana came with me for the night, along with Rachael’s daughter Isis. We all played with henna, pet the families’ buffalo and drank chai while chatting. Bedtime was hilarious, seven of us all slept in one room. It was the most comforting and cutest night I’ve had in India so far.
I’ll always remember where I’m from, why I’m here and why I love this country so much but I do need to keep in mind that this is another culture, another country, and sometimes it can even feel like another world. For all the millions of incredible people I will meet that will treat me like family, there will be those I encounter who can harm me and I need to be ready to face those challenges, especially as such a loving and positive person. This experience has really helped me empathize with the girls who face harassment on a daily basis in India and reminds me that I’m very fortunate to be Canadian. Most rural girls don’t continue their education after their teen years because their families know harassment will ensue on their everyday journeys. Imagine that was our lives at home? Not being able to leave the house without being stared at, bothered, judged or harassed...
“There’s no place like home” couldn’t be a more accurate statement for both myself and the victims of daily harassment and assault.