01 March 2007

Grandmother Report #1

It's 7h30 in the morning time and an hour past that magic orange moment when Ahmedabad is a hazy saffron offering to its own destiny. I love it here and of course it's my last day. My last day with Jayesh and Anar, my last day working at the Tekra, crossing that dark river of effluence that bounds the sanctity of the Gandhi Ashram from the profanity of the modern world.

For that's what it is, exactly, as I see it. These women with whom we work, the thousands of ragpickers who sort through the detritus of other people's lives, are the result of thousands of years of civilization, East and West. The caste system and the consumer waste system. They are, no less than the pyramid in the Louvre and the Museums of Modern Art, the height of modern cultural production. And they are our friends, teachers, and grandmothers.

Today I will go early, as I asked them to come early. We will meet at 10h00, sing together, and walk towards Manav Sadhana at 10h30. We will hold each other's hands as we walk down the hillside of trash, around the broken gutters, across the public defecation field, over the river of filth (nicknamed "The Nasty" by the children), and over to the Gandhi Ashram. Yesterday I saw a two-headed snake, one meter long and thicker than any bansuri I could ever play, make the same pilgrimage. Sickness and Death are in the air, as are all the Gods.

I worry now, as I worried the first day, that they will come late or not at all. I do not remember all their houses in the labyrinth of the Tekra, a slum which "houses" over 100,000 humans. I worry each day that one of my grandmothers will be sick, that one of my grandmothers has passed on.

A month ago, Anchal and I spent a few days interviewing different women for the project. We had a list of names -- women who had no people or objects or money to support themselves. We spent a few hours talking to a ba who could barely walk, full of joy and stories and devotion and song. She sang for us. We asked what her dreams were -- after a life of abuse too depressing to describe -- and she asked just to be able to worship God, and for a little peace before she died.

At the end of that week we had convinced six or seven women to come to the center, starting Monday, to come together for a cooking class. The women would be engaged with cleaning work, cooking for each other, and conversation. They could take the extra food home for dinner and eventually would be cooking for 50-100 people in the Tekra, charging a minimal fee to help families afford their daily vegetable curry. This is a huge initiative in an area where the majority of people are on 24-hour survival plans, buying overpriced basic commodities each evening for their family's dinner.

Most of the women in our project had no security for their meals, and often didn't eat. When they do eat, they choose what they can afford: a curry of water and potatoes (cheap), loaded with salt and chile powder (cheap) to keep the hunger at bay. This in a culture of exquisite food and intricate dietary rules, where every combination of food-as-medicine has been experimented and documented over the last 5,000 years.

Three weeks ago, we started cooking. I spent the morning with Jayeshbhai rounding up children from a different slum to the offices of Ishwarkaka's institute, and bathing them. We said high to the young lady with ten children, whose names the husband didn't seem to know, and admonished to get "the operation". She was afraid, she said. While we were loading kids into the car, a woman came to us weeping. Her husband had died the previous night. These were all families we had talked to a few days before. We went to see the both, knelt next to it, stared into his eyes. Jayeshbhai lit incense and we prayed together and sang a song, "Sita Ram". It is customary, after the cremation, for everyone involved to bathe, and to be served food by the grieving family. They had already bought a basket full of cigarettes to distribute. Jayeshbhai took the cigarettes and told them not to waste money: we will provide the food, you save your money. A woman, three children, no income, living on the side of the road. We walked down the slum to the funeral goodsman, conveniently in the middle of the row of houses. He threw everything into a cloth: the incense, ghee, colors, fabrics, hope, and reconciliation. He tied the bag to a bamboo stretcher (he makes them on the other side of the road) and we carried it back to the deceased. Jayeshbhai told me I should cook for the family. I agreed and before leaving asked his name: Sitaram.

So in some ways it was an auspicious beginning. There are these six beautiful young ladies, with skin dark and brown, cracking soles and bleeding tattoos, and our first assignment apart from loving each other is to cook in support of the grieving. It is a powerful service, they agreed, and took their task seriously. We made a curry of eggplant, peas, and cauliflower. I have all the recipes and can send them to you later.

We gathered at 11h00, introduced ourselves, and started our prayer at 11h30. Sarvodharma means "in respect of all religions". All of these women, so far, are Hindu of various flavors, but I generally give a little discourse or hint that all Gods are present and respected. They nod immediately in agreement. I think they are too old and wise to fight, to be coerced, to have much ego left to hold on to. I tell them my name and nothing else about myself. I am here to learn how to cook, and I believe God resides -- as Krishna told in the Gita -- in the heart of every person.

We sit in a circle and cut vegetables and sing songs. I play the flute. I think the flute has a special significance in India. It is the tool of Lord Krishna, the incarnation of God as Love. They tell me these things but I hadn't felt it until I played for my grandmothers. They are living testaments to devotion, to the implacable devotion of Indian culture and Indian women, of the strength of devotion in the face of a lifetime of terror and abuse. And they love the flute.

Over the next two weeks, we grow to love each other. I call them my Gopis -- the milkmaids who played and flirted with Krishna -- and they respond by dancing. They have no shyness or shame and are always willing to sing and dance. Friends visit each day and are amazed by these women so beautiful, so old, and so different. They are like the seven dwarfs, somebody noticed -- scrubbing the kitchen walls all in a line, of different heights and temperaments. One ma cannot hear and never speaks, another will never stop complaining. Some work all the time and will never rest and others only come late and have no interest in working. I need them all.

One ma tells me one day that she has a son who is alive. He only comes when drunk, to ask her for money, to steal her vessels, and to beat her. She has given her whole life for him and now lives in fear of him. When I went to see her house she showed me two long and empty shelves where her steel pots and pans used to be. All stolen, melted into alcohol and drunk away...

Another ma shows me a cut on her leg, a deep and long scar above her ankle. One day when her son was fifteen he asked her for money. She said no. He said he would pay her back. She said no, she didn't have any money. He took a knife, slashed at her, and ran away. That evening she woke up to serve food to her husband, who came from work after dark. He noticed her limp and asked what happened. She said she fell. In the morning the neighbors sang while cleaning her porch, "Oh brother, look at your wife again, it is your son who has hurt her so...".

They had to explain the story to me: that she lied so her husband wouldn't beat her son. All those players are gone now, of course. And this grandmother, how is she? We asked yesterday and she paused before saying, "When Gandhiji was killed" (she mimes the gun), "I had this many" (all fingers) "and this many" (four fingers). Yes ma! Ten and four make fourteen! And Gandhiji was killed in 1946, or 1948, rather. And it's almost sixty years later. So you must have 73.

"What? 73? Only that? No! Did you forget to add in that first 14?"

It's like that everyday. So tender and fleeting and the moments fade and crispen when I try to recall them. It's the thinness of a live beauty that is quickly escaping. Like the air out of a balloon.

A week ago I told them I was leaving. They were angry and didn't believe me. "What! That's impossible. Would Krishna leave his Gopis? This isn't going to work at all!" But like everything new -- all the salads I make and they scoff at -- they come around very quickly. Even the toothless ones. They love each other. After lunch each day and before more cleaning of the community center, they lay around in groups of two and three, half in the sun and half in the shade. Lie in each other's laps and sing together or just sit.

The next phase is of course much grander. Now we cook for 10 women (three of whom can't make it to the center so the other women deliver lunch to their houses). Soon we're going to cook for 50 families in the Tekra, provide good nutrition and dark green leafy vegetables to poor families at a low coast. But at this point, they love each other. They've found each other. It's more important than the spinach or the rice or even the God-blessed ghee I brought them from Nadiad. More important than me or the music or whether or not there's kunku or incense to do the pooja properly. And the best part is that they know that, that's the prayer is not about the words and the cooking is not about the food. Yesterday one gopi asked me, "how will we pray when you go?". And I said, in my broken Gujarati, "Mother! You are the prayer. You the feeling the prayer. Hindi Gujarati English words not prayer YOU feeling prayer!"

We've created a culture thick with respect, with devotion. They treat me as a God, and give thanks for me every day. At first it disturbed me, and I now I understand that they led by example. So each day I recognize them as such. I am younger and stronger and can touch their feet before they can bend to reach mine. Now they accept me as their grandson and the talk of Bhagvaan has faded into the background, where it must always exist and belong. We love each other.

And then the oldest gopi with the whitest hair and biggest smile (no teeth, it's cheating) and loosest skin said to us yesterday -- "You know, I used to have a really hard time sleeping. Every night so tired but no sleep. And since coming here, it's all changed. I can go home and fall asleep immediately. And have beautiful dreams. And wake up happy and peaceful and come back again."

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