I slipped off my sandals and stepped inside of the room. As I walked towards the woven rug in front of me, I could feel the coolness of the tiled floor against the soles of my feet. The fan whirled overhead, blowing strands of thick chocolate-brown hair across my face. Sitting cross-legged on the rug were three women wearing brightly colored fabrics – gold, blue, and fuchsia hues were draped across their bodies. As I approached, their smiles filled the room. “Namaste,” the women said warmly, greeting Andrew, Sasha (an intern hailing from England) and me. “Namaste, Didi,” we chanted back. We moved towards the ground and propped ourselves against the white wall behind us. Unlike the women before us, we constantly shifted our bodies until we found comfort, which typically lasted only ten minutes before we changed positions once more. I turned to my right and pulled out my camera, placing it strategically atop my folded knee. Andrew and Sasha pulled out their notebooks and pens.
We traveled two hours down winding dirt roads to Barwaha the Friday before last to interview the three women who work for SPS as mitaans or “friends.” Mitaans are members of the community that serve as mediators between self-help groups (SHGs) and SPS. The duties of mitaans are numerous, as they serve as liaisons between local banks and SHGs, help SHG members with bank transactions and records, conduct calculations during meetings, promote SPS’s livelihood programs, and provide SHG members with valuable personal and financial advice. As part of our internship work, Andrew and I are collecting the stories of female and male mitaans throughout the region.
Speaking with the women was inspiring. One woman lived in an abusive household with her husband and in-laws, and fled a year before joining SPS to her parent’s home with her one-year-old son. During that year, she faced social pressure from her neighbors and distant relatives who called upon her to return to her husband. She also lived in isolation at her parent’s home. Over and over again, she told us that working for SPS set her “free.” She was not only able to move about outside her home, but the woman – who only had a fifth grade education – was financially liberated. With the money she received she was able to pay for her son to attend a private school, as well as provide financial support to her family.
Another woman that we spoke with, who had also been working for the organization for ten years, was able to fulfill her lifelong career aspirations through SPS. Prior to working at SPS, she worked as a teacher, as well as at an institute that served mothers and their children. Although she enjoyed her work, she thought that working for SPS would better enable her to improve her community. Since working at SPS, the women in her SHGs now have bank accounts and have even learned how to use checkbooks. These women have also gained the confidence to leave the home on their own and speak with government and bank officials about their concerns. Working for SPS has also helped her, as it gave her a family. While she was going through a divorce, her colleagues supported and cared for her.
The last woman that we spoke with also found a family through her work as a mitaan. She joined SPS nine years ago, because her father – a government official – wanted her to give back to her community. Prior to working for the organization, she worked for an adult literacy NGO in Indore and operated a small grocery store. Several years ago, her father passed away and the entire community came out to support her while she grieved. His passing was especially difficult for her, as he played a pivotal role in encouraging her to join SPS – he even helped her with accounting calculations late into the night while she was training. She had told us that she knows that when she passes, the community will be there for her family, too.
I was so moved by the stories of these women. They had been so open with us about their struggles and the ways in which SPS altered their lives. Additionally, it was great to see firsthand SPS’s “ripple effect.” Not only did SPS help these women become independent and pursue their dreams, but these female mitaans in turn are helping the SHG members become self-sufficient. After the interview, we hopped back into the car and drove home.
I gave one final look at Barwaha through the open window of the FWD, my hair and dupatta thrashing violently in the wind. Barwaha was immense and had many features of a city: auto-rickshaws pushing past buses, cars, and motorcycles; bustling shops selling gadgets, clothes, medicine, and a number of other items; hole-in-the-wall restaurants smelling of freshly fried samosas, rotis, and potatoes; and multi-story homes and businesses. After spending three weeks in villages and small towns, Barwaha – one of three towns SPS works at in the Khargone District – was an overwhelming site. We drove fifteen-minutes through the town – stopping to buy treats along the way – before we entered familiar territory: scattered villages, lively rivers, and the rural countryside.
An hour into our drive home, Ayush (one of our many drivers) turned off the main road into an otherwise ordinary village. The homes we drove past were painted with pastel blues, pinks, and oranges, topped with tin or straw roofs. Men were speaking with one another on the streets, while women returned home with metallic jugs of water either planted atop their heads or tucked underneath their armpits. Young children were playing with one another by rolling car tires, while older ones herded cattle and goats to their stables.
Suddenly, the car came to a halt. To our left sat one of the most beautiful Hindu temples I have seen since arriving in India. According to Ayush, it is one of the most sacred and oldest temples in the country revering Hanuman, the eleventh incarnation of Lord Shiva.
The temple with its open layout was quite expansive. Its orange walls wore signs of time, as segments of paint were peeled away and the color faded. As we stepped through the gate into the temple, we heard the rhythmic chanting of one of its many swamis (Hindu monks). The swami, whose small body was hunched over the enormous pages of the holy text, had circular glasses and thick white hair, which clung to his back. I was amazed by his piousness, as he never glanced up from his text to look at the three outsiders nor did he break for water or air.
We entered another section of the temple, which was under renovation due to its age, and met three other swamis. The swamis – two of which had orange-colored hair from henna dye – entertained conversations with us. They then proceeded to show us Hanuman’s shrine, which had exotic flowers strewn across it and a container with water. The shrine was lit up by a number of candles, which glowed brightly against the black curtain of night. The smell of burning wax, as well as that of incense, also swam through the air. I was overwhelmed by the sanctity of the temple and shrine, which was over 5,000 years old.
Before we left, we thanked the swamis and accepted the Prasad they gave us with our right hands. As we collected our shoes, I stopped to look once more at the swami reciting the Vedas (“Book of Knowledge”). Next to him was a statue of another swami who died many years beforehand and in front of that was a statue of Hanuman. The swami at the shrine had told us that when the swami died, Hanuman’s statue cried; therefore, the swamis decided to construct the statue of the devoted monk and place the two in front of each other. I imagined that the statue would shed a tear once more when the graying monk before me passes away too. With that, I made my exit out from the gates of the temple and into the car.
Towards the end of dinner that night, the sky began to weep. We could hear the clap of thunder, as well as the howling of wind and water beating against the pavement outside. We had experienced torrential downpour one week earlier while out on the field.
During orientation, Andrew, Eden (one of two PhD research fellows), and I were en route to look at a chick rearing station for SPS’s livestock program. The station, which was forty-five minutes away from campus, required that we drive down an unpaved road filled with ditches and boulders. With 2km left into our drive, we decided to turn around and return home, because of the road’s poor condition. As soon as we began driving home, however, the rains began. The soil muddied and trapped the wheels of the FWD. We exited the car and took cover under a roof belonging to one of the local villagers (who, despite not knowing us, took us to her chicken coop to look at her birds and two-week old goats), as the driver attempted to reverse from the mud. After the engine revved for ten minutes without any results, we helped push the car from its muddy grave. The three of us, as well as two SPS employees, successfully pushed the car onto the road much to the amusement of the local children. In addition to this struggle, we were faced with yet another later that day. Rain poured into Andrew’s room, as his window did not properly shut. While attempting to close it, the window frame popped off. We had a similar introduction to the monsoon rains the night we visited Barwaha and the temple.
While the storm raged, the lights to the mess hall shut off momentarily. During the power outage, employees began to sing vintage Hindu songs that their parents used to sing to them. It was memorizing to hear their singing against the bursts of thunder and the flashes of lightning. Once electricity was restored, the singing continued. Sasha and I sat for an hour listening to the Hindu songs. At times, men and women tossed lyrics at one another; while at others all ten voices came together as one. I listened as my friend, Sohini, sang a particularly captivating song on her own. Had fatigue not consumed me, I could have stayed listening to the music for hours.
On our way out from the mess, Sasha and I were surprised to see that the storm persisted in its severity. I put on my soggy sandals (which had been left out in the rain) and ran towards home; my headlamp capturing the shadow of frogs, as they hopped away from us into the dark. Although our apartment was only three minutes away, the moments we spent in the rain without an umbrella or raincoat left us drenched. Unsurprisingly, the symphony of thunder, wind, and rain continued to play throughout the night.
Hindi Phrases and Words:
Ālū = Potato
Āma = Mango
Aṇḍā = Egg
Āpa kaisē haiṁ = How are you doing?
Āpakā svāgata hai = Your welcome
Aura āpa = And you?
Bakara = Goat
Bāriśa = Rain
Bhiṇḍī = Okra
Bijalī = Lightning
Cāvala = Rice
Copy = Notebook
Imalī-Chutney = Tamarind chutney
Kēlā = Banana
Macchara = Mosquito
Madada = Help
Maiṁ amērikā sē hūm̐ = I am from America
Mērā nāma (NAME) hai = My name is….
Nag = Cobra
Pānī = Water
Sām̐pa = Snake
Ṭhīka hai = Okay
Dil Dhadakne Do (“Let the Heart Beat”) – enough “Hinglish” is used that subtitles are not necessary.