Tuesday, July 14, 2009

The Paper Girl

The second weekend of July month was really hectic at Malibari, a tiny village with five hamlets surrounding it. Malibari is less than 25 kilometers from Raiganj. But the differences are vast. There is no electricity, no road, no sanitary facilities, no internet connection, restricted cellular connectivity, and lack of access to basic amenities of life--including health and education--make it an ideal setting for any Indian cinema for shooting a film, with river Nagar adding to the music of the little cluster of villages. Malibari is also blessed with great mixture of animist tribal communities, Bengali speaking Hindu communities, Mohammedans and some converted tribal Christians. It is just two kilometers away from a larger village called Bhatol. Malibari has a little school with tin roof and partly raised open wall, placed under my guidance. Since a teacher had left couple of months ago, and that I had just taken over the school only from the first week of July, I had to identify a teacher. Now, for the starters, in these little village schools we are not looking for “teachers” who are trained in the best schools of pedagogy. That is so for three reasons : the rural setting is too alien to the urban educated teachers who love to live in comfort; there is a need for teachers who can reach out to the children and their parents on day to day basis; and, the payment for teachers is abysmally low in these rural private run schools. So, I have to find someone who has completed at least 10th grade, and can teach and understand children.

On Saturday and Sunday, besides all the other celebrations, meetings and marketing that I had to complete, I came across one girl who impressed me while choosing a teacher. We had a three member team to interview the girl who is just touching her twenties. Her name is Piyali Roy. She hails from Bhatol, and her father used to work as a cleaner of a vehicle; he gathered some money, and purchased a jeep on loan, and runs it to manage a family of five, while he continues to pay back the loan. Piyali on her part contributed to the family actively since she was seven years old. She used to be a “paper girl” in that little Bhatol which boasts of a population of about 1,500 residents. She was issuing 100 newspapers every day. That is really impressive for a village like Bhatol, because for about 300 families and 30 odd shops, that is really a good reach. So, our questions revolved around how she made a successful business? She had the mantra. Reach the paper on time! People wanted the papers at the same time each day. So, she would go around on her bicycle to reach the 100 families and shops to deliver the newspapers. Then she came out with the truth. “Since last year I have not been delivering the paper on regular basis. May be five to six times a month. My brother takes care of it.”. “Why?”, we enquired. “Because people think that I am too old to deliver papers as I am a young girl. And so they make funny comments about me from behind. So, I go to deliver the papers only when my brother has something else to do.” We insisted on enquiring further : “Do you really mind the comments?” Piyali replied, “Those damned people, I don’t give a damn! That’s why I deliver the papers even now when my brother is out, or for study. I had to stop my studies three years ago, to support my family. But I want my brother to study. I shall continue to deliver papers even if I get a job or not!”

Needless to say, Piyali got the job!

Prodigal Fathers

I have begun to observe a trend in the emerging global power – India. As I travel across the country and various parts of the State of West Bengal, I see there are many irresponsible parents who are not able to match the pressures of the modern world, and they just lose out as mentors and guides to their children, abdicating the responsibility of parenthood as accepted in Indian culture. Let us look at an example. Every Indian family knows that it is the responsibility of the parents, specially the father, to ensure that the girl children are married off in time. Now, look around you. You begin to see an alarming number of girls in their late twenties and thirties, unmarried, and remain so, simply because they have not found a proper partner either by themselves or by their parents, in spite of the fact that sex-ratio in India is clearly leaning towards the male child. I have known cases of irresponsible parents who want the salaries of their employed daughters so that they need not fulfill the obligation of sending away the daughter after marriage with the son in law, and lose the income! I have known older brothers fleecing on the earning of the sister siblings until they reach their mid thirties when the parents are dead early in life. I have seen parents not letting daughters married by defaming their own daughters so that the income continues to remain at home. Where are we heading to? What has happened to the culture of parents ensuring their girls get married in their late teens, or at least in their early twenties?

Besides the economic reason attached with it, as we have explained above, I can see two important elements that are afflicting the parents. Firstly, the pressures of parenting are so high that the elders do not have the strength to withstand the pressures of a modern world that communicates across the globe in seconds. The generation of parents we talk about are well meaning decent people, but they have not culturally out grown their age of slower communication. So, in a globalized economy, the socio-economic pressures and cultural wedge seem to be so high that the parents themselves fall into depression and they find it hard to handle the needs of their children.

The second is equally important. There is a conflict of moral values which the parents have not been able to digest and so they react by doing nothing about it. Let us take the same example of marriage again. The world of fidelity and long-lasting love of the parents has been challenged severely by increasing divorces, infidelity in marriages and rampant “love” marriages that does not give a damn to the opinion of the parents. In this cultural alienation some parents have become, in a sense, dumb spectators while few others have become arrogant exploiters of the lucrative economic benefit at the cost of women—to say, their own daughters!

Wednesday, July 8, 2009

Guilty Bystander

Six weeks have gone since Aila, the killer Cyclone struck parts of West Bengal and Bangladesh. I have been traveling far and wide in the last weeks, discussing and planning, coordinating with persons and corroborating information for the benefit of all. But yesterday was different. I traveled with two young men and Fr. Sarto to some parts of South 24 Parganas district. As we left Kolkata it started raining. As we reached the district, it was pouring cats and dogs. That makes all the difference for people who are already fed up of living in water. Some need the heavens to shut up, while the farmers need it to open up further.

We still saw good many people, still living in some of the huts beside the road, made of black polythene sheets given by the government. The huts were not bigger than the size of my bed - 3 ft x 6.5 ft. I could see children and women inside them, trying to cramble for space. If this is all life is all about, I feel like a guilty bystander. I wish to do more for these people. I wish to show them some ray of hope. I wish to be their father...brother...and friend. In the rain the whole day went without doing anything, but for visiting and meeting some volunteers who were braving the rain to be in touch with people. The volunteers had nothing to give, but to alert the people about drinking water safely, so that cholera or any other endemic disease may not take their lives. Already about 40 persons have died of diarrhea since the Aila.

No more relief materials are in sight. No food. No clothes. No gruel kitchens that were feeding thousands. Suddenly all seem to have come to a halt a month after the Aila is gone. It is time for rehabilitation. But, these people.... they are still in water. It all looks like a sea. By noon, the high tide had hit. Once again you could see the whole area was under water, as if everything was one large sea. If only I had the means....and if I have more hands... Should gods be blamed for this? Or, should we blame ourselves?

Wednesday, July 1, 2009


You could always find yourself as a stranger in a foreign land. That's what you consider yourself to be. That's how others look at you to be. I ran into number of strangers while staying at Calcutta in in the past few weeks. Some of them left indelible marks. I must mention a few of them here. There was a French girl with some beautiful name...I don't remember hers. I was amazed by her commitment. Every early morning she would walk down faithfully to the Mother House (the place where Mother Teresa lived), and work there from morning to evening, and return back with a big bright smile...never complaining about the spicy food and large pieces of chicken floating in some gravy that was certainly not palatable for a French lady. I also met Fr. Bob from Michigan who came here with a group of about 12 young boys and girls from an University there. They were accompanied by also a few volunteers. Fr. Bob is a tall and bulky man for Indian standards. But calm and highly concentrated. Since I stayed in a room closer to his I could observe him better. You can say this man is highly committed and had a large heart (as big as his size) for the poor. He would never mind the heatwave that was scorching everybody here. The heat must have really taken its toll on him as he would sweat profusely throughout the day.

There was a thinner ever smiling and very sociable Michelle. She had joined a few of us as we were conversing about my own future options. And she got excited about it, and started following the story as if it was all happening to one of her own close friends. Michelle is inquisitive and curious to know how things are happening. She would always wonder at the way the India Machine (the whole country as it operates : its transport, the people, administration and everything) operates. I also found her to be very religious with strong trust in the Lord, and dedication to the poor.

I also met a Professor of Accountancy, Christina. She had traveled alone. She has some friends in Chennai. She too is equally inquisitive and extremely sharp in mind. She would always inquire to understand the why of the things. I had the opportunity to spend quite a bit of time with her over the meals. She too would walk each day to the Shishu Bhavan (the children's home close to Mother House) to spend time with the kids, wash their clothes and care for the poor. I began to admire her over the period although I did not see her everyday. Somehow she seemed to portray a mature woman who was willing to take on the world by understanding its undercurrents of extreme poverty, channels of exploitation and discriminative social fabric.

Christina, Michelle and I planned a dinner for the night of 30 June, Tuesday. Michelle brought along with her three more volunteers. Cora (she too was with Fr. Bob's group) from Michigan, Cait from Ohio and Banks from Tennesse. Cait was the most vocal among all. She is a student of micro-biology and said she can help me out in relief work, if required anywhere. Cait is a good company, and you would never get bored in hers. Banks had been to Bangladesh to study the Psychological Impacts and Patters in Micro Finance! (Hi, I have been promoting micro finance for long....but I never thought of that.) He is tall, focussed and well meaning. Cora was not in best of her health. So, she did not talk much. I must come to know her more later.

For now, it is all a great new world.... Lord make me an instrument of your peace..... where strangers become friends, and enemies begin to speak to one another!